This was Barack Obama’s speech, and what he left out is as revealing as what he put in it. After all, the State of the Union is a statement of priorities. On this night, the weight or importance of an issue can actually be measured in words. To our ears, there were too few about the structural changes, many of them global, shaping American competitiveness and economic well-being.
For starters, the crimped discussion of education stood out. Obama’s own Race to the Top initiative is a successful example of how the federal government has taken the lead on education policy. There is a plan afoot to expand the program to reward school districts in addition to states. It was not mentioned. More deeply, what the president didn’t address, at least not directly, was the (insufficiently appreciated) link between good schooling and social equality and mobility. He missed a chance to provide some context and insight to an often abstract debate about income quintiles.
Public pensions are no one’s definition of a sexy issue. But there may be no more urgent question for every government in the U.S. In California, as Steven Greenhut pointed out in a Bloomberg View op-ed article this week, compensation to police and firefighters -- including pension costs -- accounts for as much as 80 percent of the budgets of some cities and towns. States such as New York are in the midst of attempts to reform their retirement systems. (Disclosure: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has testified before the state legislature on these efforts.)
The federal government itself, with its health-care and retirement responsibilities, is often described as an insurance company with a standing army. Yet this looming crisis was nowhere mentioned in Obama’s speech.
Foreign policy also got short shrift. Obama’s State of the Union speeches have generally devoted less attention to foreign policy than those of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And notwithstanding the occasional soaring speech, he’s more of a pragmatist than his two predecessors, caught up in neither globalization nor American exceptionalism. Yet the discussion of how to best deal with emerging economic forces was limited and, in one big case, wildly off-key. India, for example, received no mention, as an increasingly vital strategic partner or as a vibrant democracy that needs now to shore up its commitment to economic reform.
Given the emphasis that the administration has put on its “pivot” to Asia, though, the speech’s biggest foreign policy disappointment was its reduction of China, the world’s biggest rising power, to a duplicitous tire salesman. We heard nothing about how best to contend with China’s growing influence and strategic reach. Instead, the president told us about how the administration’s decision to impose punitive tariffs on low-end Chinese tire imports saved 1,000 American jobs -- an assertion that would be debatable if it weren’t so picayune compared with the scale of the U.S.-China relationship.
By all means hold China and other countries to the rules that govern global trade. But let’s not kid ourselves: A new “Trade Enforcement Unit” will not deliver us from the law of comparative advantage and the need to compete effectively in the global marketplace.
To be fair, the president emphasized that theme in his address. Yet it felt oddly 20th-century, with its protectionist overtones and emphasis on tax breaks for favored manufacturers. Yes, the U.S. should make every effort, within reason, to keep its manufacturing jobs. But the president could also talk more about challenges such as how to use America’s strengths in information technology, and what to do with old manufacturing sites. Call it post-industrial policy.
Of all the themes and subjects absent from Obama’s speech, however, the most depressing omission was also the most unquantifiable: hope. The word itself appeared just once. Obama as candidate was all about offering hope. Obama as president -- somewhat understandably -- has been more about staving off despair. Double-digit unemployment will do that to a president.
While the unemployment rate remains unacceptably high, other indicators are improving. The overriding concern of most Americans for most of Obama’s presidency has been job security. But maybe it’s time -- and in an election year, convenient -- to refocus. The message doesn’t have to be that things won’t get any worse. It can also be that they will get better. The 91.5 percent of the U.S. workforce that does have a job needs to feel hopeful, too.
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