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Grading the State of The Union: A Solid B+

By / 1.26.2011

Last week, the Progressive Policy Institute released a Memo to President Obama, which contained 10 Big Ideas for Getting America Moving Again. How did the President’s speech match up to our recommendations?

Overall, he did quite well. Eight of our ten ideas were largely consonant with proposals included in the address, and the future-oriented rhetoric echoes the language in our memo. We also appreciate his willingness to look to both sides of the aisle to find solutions.

However, we were disappointed that he did not discuss the sluggish housing market, and that he did offer any ideas to address the roots of the partisan rancor in Washington.

Our overall grade: B+

Here’s a proposal-by-proposal scorecard:

 

1. Removing Obstacles to Growth: A Regulatory Improvement Commission

 

We proposed: A periodic review process conducted by a Regulatory Improvement Commission, modeled loosely on the BRAC Commissions for military base closures.

The President said: “To reduce barriers to growth and investment, I’ve ordered a review of government regulations.”

Analysis: The President clearly understands that we need to prune obsolete and ineffective regulations and stimulate economic innovation and entrepreneurship. But agency self-review is inadequate.

Grade: A-

2. Internal National Building: A National Infrastructure Bank

 

We proposed: Smart, innovative financing solutions that enable us to restore the backbone of our economy. A well-structured National Infrastructure Bank can play this role by leveraging public dollars with the participation of private-sector investors.

The President said: “The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America.  To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information — from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet.”

Analysis: Making infrastructure one of five sections of the speech gave it real prominence. But the President needs to do more than just propose “that we redouble those efforts.”   He needs to lay out a mechanism to do that rationally, and to identify clear funding for it. A National Infrastucture Bank could accomplish that.

Grade: A-

3. A Way to Pay for High-Speed Rail

We proposed: Restructuring the Highway Trust Fund into a Surface Transportation Trust Fund that recaptures its original mission—to build and maintain an efficient national transportation network—and updates that mission to reflect 21st-century priorities, including upgrades to our passenger and freight rail systems.

The President said: “Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. “

Analysis: We applaud the President’s full-throated commitment to high-speed rail. However, he’s going to need to figure out a way to pay for it. We suggest he read Mark Reutter’s excellent memo on how to finance high-speed rail.

Grade: A-

4. Restoring Fiscal Discipline in Washington

 

We proposed: Restoring fiscal discipline in Washington by trimming the $1.1 trillion in outdated tax expenditures, capping domestic spending (including defense), eliminating supplemental defense budgets, and slowing mandatory expenditures by reducing benefits for affluent retirees.

The President said: “Starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years… we cut excessive spending wherever we find it –- in domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes… we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations…we simply can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.”

Analysis: The President clearly gets the seriousness of the looming debt crisis, but understands the difference between smart cuts and needed investments. But he could have come out more strongly in favor the Fiscal Commission’s work, and he only paid lip service to entitlements.

Grade: B+

5. Setting National Targets: A Balanced Energy Portfolio

We proposed: A national Balanced Energy Portfolio with a target fuel mix allocated into thirds by 2040: one third of our electricity generated by renewable resources, one third by nuclear power, and one third from traditional fossil fuels.

The President said: “By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.  Some folks want wind and solar.  Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.  To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.”

Analysis: The President is thinking big, but also recognizing that nuclear and natural gas need to be part of any energy mix.

Grade: A

6. Greening the Pentagon: An Energy Security Innovation Fund

We proposed: An Energy Security Innovation Fund, housed in the Pentagon, to help companies bridge the gap. Such a fund would leverage public dollars with private money to support research and deployment of the most promising green products.

The President said: “We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.”

Analysis: The next clean energy breakthrough is going to require support from the government. But Obaa should look beyond the Department of Energy and recognize that the military can be a fertile source of innovation, too.

Grade: A-

7. Bringing Public Education into the 21st Century

We proposed: To radically transform public education by growing charter schools, ending teacher tenure as we know it, spurring a network of “Innovation Zones”, and creating a “Digital Teacher Corps”.

The President said: “Our schools share this responsibility.  When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance.  But too many schools don’t meet this test.”

Analysis: Education is clearly the key to our ability to “win the future,” and the President understands this. We support his Race to the Top program and the call for more bright young people to go into education. But we also hope he thinks more creatively about radical new ideas for 21st century education, embracing the possibilities of charter schools, digital education, and “innovation zones.”

Grade: A-

8. Lifting Housing Markets: One Million Homeowner Vouchers

We proposed: An innovative way to jump-start the housing market would be for the federal government to provide a million vouchers that allow low-income renters to become homeowners.

The President said: (Nothing)

Analysis: Surprisingly, the President failed to mention the sluggish housing market, which many economists believe is one of the leading factors holding back an economic recovery.

Grade: F

9. Align Innovation and Immigration

We proposed: Aligning innovation and immigration by providing a citizenship path for foreign students with advanced technical degrees and illegal immigrants’ children who are interested in national service.

The President said: “I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration… I know that debate will be difficult.  I know it will take time.  But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort.  And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation. “

Analysis: The President deserves points for having the courage to bring up immigration reform. But he clearly gets it: our global competitiveness depends on continuing to be a magnet for the world’s best and brightest.

Grade: A

10. Taking Power from Special Interests: A Fair Way to Finance Elections

We proposed: A hybrid Fair Elections system introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to allow federal candidates to choose to run for office without relying on large contributions by using federal money to match small donations.

The President said: (Nothing)

Analysis: Campaign finance reform is not on the agenda, and the President does not seem particularly interested in putting it there. This is too bad. A great way to break the partisan rancor in Washington would be change the way politicians get elected to office. As long as congressional campaigns are privately funded, and as long as the big donations come primarily from ideologues and special interests, pragmatic candidates are going to have a tough time raising the resources they need to get started, and a difficult time winning in all-important low-turnout primaries.

Grade: F

Conclusion:

Overall, it was a great speech. It laid out the problems that we face as a nation, and provided a vision of an America that invests smartly in the future, building infrastructure, providing educational opportunities, and remaining a magnet for the best and brightest in the world, and all in a way that could move us past partisan divides.