The State of the Union Address is shaping up to be a must-see event. For starters, the majority of the country will rejoice to see House Speaker John Boehner on the president’s left flank, replacing Nancy Pelosi.-- This will give commentators a new data point; they will analyze how many times the chamber breaks into applause, how many times the president says, “Let me be perfectly clear” and, for the first time, how often the Speaker of the House whips out his hanky.
Another exciting novelty is the mix-up of seating. No longer will Republicans and Democrats square off into neatly-formed phalanxes. Instead, members of Congress will sit next to their ideological opponents, symbolizing the new era of civility inspired by the Tucson shootings. --This could lead to unmitigated chaos. In the past, people covertly scrolling through e-mails or catching a few z’s could still show their support of the president by following those around them, jumping to their feet en masse or hollering in unison. This year they will be on their own. Expect considerable confusion as members pop up and down or applaud off cue – like addled Presbyterians at a high-church communion service.
For those who have followed this administration closely, the speech itself is unlikely to inspire. President Obama will doubtless ballyhoo those initiatives that have caused his approval ratings to rise of late – like his new discovery that too much regulation (such as contained in his health care and financial overhaul bills) can damage industry. That will be quite the pivot, since in his first State of the Union he decried that “regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market.” He’ll also remind the audience of his rapprochement to the business community, which he hopes will create jobs. One might fairly ask….what took him so long?
He will reiterate his commitment to expanding exports, to pushing innovation and to reforming education – all of which are meant to bolster our competitiveness and further our long-term growth. These are all worthy goals; they were also worthy goals when they took center stage in past State of the Union Speeches.
Early in his 2009 remarks, the newly-elected president promised to enact an “agenda that begins with jobs.” Unfortunately, it took almost two years for Mr. Obama to finally sign a jobs bill – in November 2010. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans went without work.
This year the president has one overarching mission. Having already jump-started his 2012 campaign he will want to convince the majority of the country that the post-November Mr. Obama is the real Mr. Obama.
He will try to argue that he really does oppose big government, that he is concerned about the sky-high deficits, and that he embraces private enterprise as the key to our nation’s long-term future. This is what Americans think, and what they want to hear from our president.
Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words. Under Mr. Obama, the number of civilians in the federal workforce, which had held steady at 1.1 to 1.2 million for nearly thirty years, has jumped to 1.43 million.
Moreover, the number of federal employees earning over $150,000 has doubled since Mr. Obama took office. Government has never been so big.
As to our budget shortfall, Mr. Obama vowed, in his 2009 speech, to “cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office.” Was he talking about the 2008 deficit of $438 billion that he “inherited” from George W. Bush, or the $1.4 trillion deficit he posted in his first year in office? Or maybe the $1.3 trillion deficit of his second year?
As for the détente with the business community, we shall see. Many of the recommendations likely to come from the new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness – such as passing pending trade pacts with Panama and Columbia, ramping up public-private partnerships, accelerating education reforms -- will face opposition from organized labor. This is where Mr. Obama’s eagerness to play ball with the business community is likely to end. With an election looming, the president cannot afford to alienate his biggest backers.
President Obama is not likely to address our country’s largest imminent challenge – the financial crisis faced by a number of important states. Already saddled with crushing public employee pension funds, states like California and Illinois are also going to be buried alive by the Medicaid obligations demanded of them by the new healthcare law. The resolution of their budget gaps will require many states to adopt measures anathema to organized labor – mainly cutting work forces or renegotiating pension and healthcare obligations. This will be the true test of our newly centrist president. My guess: we’ll find ourselves back in the room with the pre-November Mr. Obama.