In his sixth State of the Union Address, President Obama put forth a vision for America evoking a tone reminiscent of his 2008 campaign. With almost all economic indicators at pre-recession levels and a nation no longer in crisis, Obama conveyed an image of a President free of the shackles of the past and determined to prove the critics wrong. “Tonight, we turn the page,” he pronounced. “Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.”
A defiant and confident Obama pushed an ambitious domestic agenda that could reverberate well beyond his presidency. He focused heavily on the economy, calling on Congress to impose new taxes on the wealthy and large financial institutions, provide free community college for most students, and mandate child care and paid parental leave for millions of middle class Americans. At other times, he seemingly mocked the new Republican Congress, calling on them to “set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” in reference to the party’s determination to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
But beneath the ostentatious nature of the State of the Union, there are meaningful policy proposals that have been meticulously scrutinized by academics, policy practitioners, and government officials. These policies are empirically tested and furiously debated, with experts devoting years of study to the advancement of their field of social science research. At the McCourt School of Public Policy, we have academics and policy practitioners that are at the top of these fields, influencing the policy debate going on in Washington. I decided to ask a few professors at the McCourt School to analyze and grade Obama’s State of the Union policy proposals. Overall, the President does quite well. His rhetoric was strong and his policies were well-received; but translating these proclamations into legislation certainly will not be easy.
A Public Management Perspective
In this, his second to last State-of-the-Union address, President Obama focused on his legacy and used the bully pulpit to set his vision of that. He circled back to the hopeful messages of his first term about what unites Americans, and reminded us that we are a resilient people capable of weathering even the worst storms. This sort of optimism is what we want from leaders—in fact, we know that optimism is a trait that defines leaders.
And although the state of our union is strong, the union between the branches of the American government is another story. Here Obama challenged Congress to cooperate, encouraging his adversaries to “appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.” To the extent that management is about dealing with conflict, the sentiment (or at least the language) was spot on. In reality, we know that there is animosity on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. James Madison expected—or at least hoped—that this sort of competition would exist between the ambitious characters in our branches of government. Here, Madison is smiling from his grave, but lovers of government efficiency and effectiveness are not so satisfied.
Grade: A for rhetoric; C+ for results
Middle Class Economics
I applaud the broad outline of the President’s proposals on capital gains taxes and expenditures on two-earner families, child care, parental leave, and community college tuition. These proposals will not only increase equity in our economy, but they will also invest in employment, skill building, and child care to make our current and future workers more productive. Of course, the devil is often in the details – for instance, spending very scarce public dollars on free community college might lead to middle-class students entering community college rather than four-year schools at the outset, which could hurt their academic outcomes. This also might squeeze the poor or weaker performers out of classes they need to be successful afterwards. And, of course, these proposals will be “Dead on Arrival” in the Republican-controlled Congress. Still, the overall direction is a good one, and the debate about them is worth having.
Climate change, energy, and the environment
President Obama did not make much news on climate change, energy, or the environment in his State of the Union speech last night. On energy, he briefly touted U.S. gains in energy production, from oil and natural gas to wind and solar power. But, he did not highlight energy policy, other than to quickly note that the Keystone XL pipeline is not itself a jobs and infrastructure program. President Obama devoted much more time to climate change. He first directly challenged Republicans who question the scientific consensus that human activities are causing the problem. He then used extremely forceful language to defend his current policy initiatives, making clear his intention to fight back against any Congressional action to weaken or reverse these initiatives, even if it means vetoes.
Although President Obama did not offer any new proposals, he clearly asserted his belief that the United States has a moral obligation to future generations to take action, and that he will unapologetically continue to pursue policies to address climate change domestically, bilaterally, and globally.
Dr. Adriana Kugler (former Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor)
The President barely touched on immigration in his State of the Union Address. He made a brief reference to the executive actions he announced on November 20 of last year. He referred to the expansion of the Deferred Action of Children Arrivals (DACA) when he said “passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student.” He also briefly referenced the Deferred Action for Parents (DAP) of US Citizens and permanent residents when he said “no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child.” The only reference on any intentions to push for immigration reform was a vague reference when he said “it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” However, he did not explain what he planned to do about the 5 to 6 million undocumented who are not covered by DACA or DAP. Neither did the President explain where he could find common ground with Republicans in Congress in other areas of immigration. A natural area would have included discussion of skilled immigration and laws to retain foreign students after graduation, the increase in the cap on H1B visas and the extension of investor programs. He also fell short in advocating for a comprehensive immigration reform on economic grounds. He made a compelling case on the improvement in the economy and the importance of introducing measures to reduce persistent inequality. This would have been a good opportunity to address the contributions of immigrants to the growth of the economy and the growth of employment, which have been well documented.
The Republican response was not much better and highlighted the lack of consensus on this issue in the Republican Party. In fact, the English response by Joni Ernst (R-IA), who denounces the Senate Immigration Bill as amnesty, did not make any reference to immigration at all. By contrast, the Spanish “translation” by Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) referenced the need of “modernizing our legal immigration system.”
Feasibility and Balance of Power
Last year, it was the executive order pen; this year, it was the Charlie Hebdo pencils.
President Obama, unbowed by a bruising mid-year election that put both chambers of Congress in Republican control, delivered a defiant, yet somewhat conciliatory, State of the Union address. He vowed to veto Republican legislation, though he also appealed to Congress to work with him to achieve “a better politics . . . one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles.” How does his speech fare with respect to feasibility and balance of powers? In today’s polarized, divided-government atmosphere, feasibility has to start with politics. The President argued that his party should not “abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine,” yet the policies he put forth—lower taxes for middle income families, better child care, paid sick leave, equal pay for women, paid community college—are unlikely to be passed by the Republican Congress. Nor is his plan to tax the rich to pay for these policies. Most of his speech sounded more like it was being given to a Congress controlled by his own party than to a newly elected Republican-majority Congress. His domestic policy proposals were politically unfeasible. On the other hand, he did not wield his executive order pen, or threaten to ignore checks and balances and go it alone. From that perspective, the President was much more respectful of the balance of powers than in last year’s State of the Union.
For feasibility, I give the President a B-; for balance of powers, a B+.
Feature Photo: Flickr/(The White House)