State of the Union

Obama lays foundation of opportunity and fairness; details are still required

In his fifth State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama laid out a vision for how the United States fully emerges from its economic struggles as a stronger, better-equipped nation that invests in growing its middle class through education, innovation and a robust job market. In doing so, Obama attempted to eclipse the gridlocked partisan debate about debt and deficit with loftier ideals about investing in America’s – and Americans’ – future. He did so with a palpable sense of urgency. Missing, though, were the specifics of just how this vision will come about.

The speech was dominated by proposals for how to strengthen the U.S. economy: through creating new jobs and reinvigorating the country’s manufacturing output, through domestic energy production in the form of renewable or alternative sources such as natural gas, through education – technical training in high schools, affordable and, more importantly, valuable college education, and high-quality preschool for all American children – through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools and pipelines, and through tax reform that benefits small businesses and middle-income taxpayers.

On this last, as with all the proposals he laid out on Tuesday, Obama makes a case for fairness as the ideal:

“The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms and more time expanding and hiring, a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t work the system and pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries, a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America.”

He is right on principle, but the details – which will make or break these proposals politically and pragmatically – remain to be seen. Each of the priorities Obama articulated on Tuesday was as short on specifics as it was long on its benefit to the economy and American society in general.

It is indeed of great value and importance to create good-paying jobs and an educated workforce to perform them. Obama’s plan to create 15 manufacturing hubs, partnering with the departments of defense and energy, is representative of the essential investment in innovation the country must make in order to stay economically strong. That is underscored by his emphasis on technical training and education in general as paramount to building a strong middle class populated by individuals with many options for success. In such an environment, Obama rightly claims, the entire economy and all who comprise it will reap the rewards.

The trouble is that Obama is the head of a divided government, where his opposition’s world view runs head-on into that of his own party. Obama addressed that tension explicitly throughout his speech by challenging Republicans to action on spending issues, tax reform, mortgage refinance legislation, gun-control legislation, immigration and paycheck fairness – among many others. But he also departed from his first-term commitment to bipartisan solutions with a none-too-implicit threat of executive action, should Congress fail to heed his call.

Indeed, Obama’s speech set a course for accomplishment – for him as president, but more importantly, for the nation as a whole. It was bold and wide-ranging, as is appropriate for a nation as multifaceted, broadly talented and deeply challenged as ours. How he translates that vision into the accomplishments it demands will be the challenge of his second term, and it will not come easily. Details are required for that translation.