The bar is not a high one. The Constitution simply states that the president "from time to time give Congress information on the state of the union and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." Pretty straight forward, but the State of the Union addresses have become, well, stately affairs; full of tradition (and hype). Such occasion are especially important in that they are designed, at least on paper, to impart to the American people a sense of our progress as a free people, an appreciation of the difficulties that lie ahead and roadmap for how we’re going to move into the future.
Last night President Obama stood in the well of the Congress and true to his duty and tradition delivered his fourth State of the Union address. In it, the President stuck to familiar themes, created a couple of new federal programs (and a department or two), and largely laid out the laundry list of things accomplished. He spoke generically about manufacturing, the housing crisis and tax reform among other things. But unlike the billing the speech received hours before it was delivered, it was not an overly partisan speech as advertised by some or threatened by others. Instead, the President seemed to strike that balance between stoking the flames for his base and at least saying he would work with the GOP Congress to get something done. As he said several times, “put the bill on my desk and I will sign it.” But like all things in Washington, it makes a difference what’s in the bill.
Yet, more than the challenges (“with or without this Congress I will keep taking action”) this speech lacked the kind of passion necessary to rally a nation around a set of bold ideas — because it even lacked the bold ideas. There was no entitlement reforms or social security reforms; no 21st-century space program, or national call for self-sacrifice (except for “The Rich”). It was a cautionary speech. Carefully crafted to excite, but not too much, to feint action, but not really. Remember the president’s first State of the Union and how different the tone was then as compared to now? In 2009 it was all “yes we can,” healing the earth and preventing the sun and moon from colliding. But since then reality has been a cruel mistress, as unemployment stays stubbornly high, an additional five trillion dollars have been added to the nation’s debt; and while a grateful nation rests a bit easier with the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Iran poses a real and present danger to security in the Middle East.
As Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels noted in the GOP response "On these evenings, presidents naturally seek to find the sunny side of our national condition. But when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true.”
The president was elected to fix what the Republicans had broken with big government republicanism. Instead, three years later, we are still talking about creating a jobs program and fighting over spending more, not less (our government added over a trillion dollars in new spending in 2011). Which is why as you read this “one in five men of prime working age, and nearly half of all persons under 30, [will] not go to work today.
The root of America’s success has always sprung out of the hard labor of its entrepreneurs — the men and women who risk it all on a dream. Government doesn’t do that; government can’t do that. When a job is created by a small business that is an investment not only in the community, but also in its people.
In his State of the Union address the president tells us “…we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Republicans want our economy healthy and all Americans to do well; to achieve wealth, to invest or save that wealth; to create for themselves and their families legacy wealth. But in doing so, it’s important to know who determines what my fair share is and who gets to write the rules. The answer to those questions has been at the heart of defining economic policy and the nature of America’s economic recovery — a recovery lead by government or one lead by entrepreneurs.
In the end, trickle-down government will not rebuild the middle class; only a sound, smartly regulated free-enterprise system can do that. But, the president didn’t talk about that.
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