Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama’s State-of-the-Union address tone-setting, but so what?

President Obama’s SOFU address was a good speech, not a great one. There were moments that were inspirational, but there were also moments that were, dare I say it, boring. In all, however, he was setting the right tone – bipartisan – and right course – centrist. Some conservatives wish this could have been his first SOFU. Liberals might rightly ask, yes, but what does he stand for? I think he stands as a practitioner of politics as the art of the possible. And even the centrist vision he has articulated is going to be difficult to implement.

I like Obama’s tying America’s competitiveness to our innovation and creativity in “this generation’s Sputnik moment.” I like that he stuck with the importance of education, infrastructure investment and clean energy. There’s an appealing symmetry in proposing to fund investment in clean energy, tomorrow’s fuel, by eliminating subsidies for oil, yesterday’s. But one person’s investment is another’s budget buster. And the reality of our dependence on fossil fuel is a lot more complicated that green energy advocates admit.

Obama wasn’t afraid of fellow Democrats in recognizing that reining in entitlements – Social Security and Medicare - over the long haul is essential to reduce the deficit. And he wasn’t afraid of Republicans in suggesting that, while it’s important to eliminate silly or intrusive regulations, he’s not going to back off of regulations necessary for safety or consumer protection. In other words, we’re still going to have an activist government, as Michael Gerson of The Washington Post points out.

Comprehensive immigration reform is still on the table, and the President even got a round of applause from Arizona Senator John McCain, who was for immigration reform before he was against it, as a 2010 candidate. And he isn’t going to cave to the push to repeal health reform, though he allowed as how he’s open to improving it, even flirting with some unspecified tinkering with malpractice insurance. He also gave a nod to corporate tax reform, noting that, by eliminating tax loopholes, the tax rates could be lowered.

Need I say “devil is in the details?” Obama’s speech lacked specificity about hard choices to be made, as economist Robert Samuelson points out. What are the trade-offs that will be necessary to get anything done, especially in this stage of the presidential election cycle?

Obama rightly read the national mood delivered in last November’s election results and no doubt is doing what Bill Clinton did after Newt Gingrich et al “shellacked” him in 1994. But beyond the comfort of his moving to the center and embracing bipartisanship, there’s probably not much to go to the bank on in the rhetorical flourishes of the State-of-the-Union address.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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