Facing almost as much uncertainty about the economy one year into his mandate as he did at the outset, President Obama gave his State of the Union address the way we’ve come to expect him to – sticking to his guns with cool determination while acknowledging that not everyone agrees with him. His speech highlighted what he has accomplished and promised to the American people, but didn’t propose any sweeping new changes.
With unemployment at 10 percent and Wall Street banks handing out record bonuses (Goldman Sachs’ bonuses are reported to match 2007’s record levels), and pundits reading doom for the administration in the tea leaves of the Massachusetts election, the political temptation to go populist would be strong. But Obama decided instead to reassert his progressive program for addressing the economy. Obama highlighted not grand industrial policy, but accomplishments that have helped the American people face a truly global recession. The stimulus bill helped us avoid falling off the economic precipice, and unemployment protection and COBRA extensions make a meaningful difference to people looking for work in a changing economy.
Obama’s call to Democrats to not “run for the hills” on issues such as health care suggests that the talk of that reform’s demise was premature. The embrace of centrist – and even Republican – proposals on energy, including nuclear power and offshore drilling, might offer some hope on a climate change bill making it’s way through the Senate. But until politicians spell out what sacrifices will come with addressing climate change, it may be a campaign promise that remains unfulfilled.
Disappointingly, the president soft-pedalled trade and immigration priorities. While they were mentioned, it’s notable that the president didn’t call on Congress to pass free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. And the reference to the Doha global trade round and immigration reform were pro forma at best, not promising any results.
Obama was laying the foundation for significant payoff from his education initiatives, however. Student loan subsidies to banks are an easily overlooked handout to Wall Street that the president was smart to put an end to. The investment in K-12 education reform, community colleges, and Pell grants will help prepare the next generation of Americans for the 21st-century economy. Incentives for debt forgiveness for public sector workers will mean that our best and brightest — who go to very expensive colleges and graduate schools — can now afford to look at public service, and can be used to limit some of the demand for a revolving door between the public and private sectors.
The president didn’t break new ground, or lay out a visionary mandate for change. But he reassured us that he was going to govern as he was elected, looking for progressive solutions to the challenges the country faces.
One last point — at last week’s “banking limits” announcement, beltway Kremlinologists were reading volumes into the fact that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was off to one side, while presidential economic adviser Paul Volcker was front and center. (Simon Johnson said: “Where you stand at major White House announcements is never an accident.”) Last night was Geithner’s chance to stand front-and-center — shoulder to shoulder with Bob Gates. With Larry Summers way off to the right — and I didn’t see Volcker in the audience — the handshake the president gave Geithner on his way in would seem to be sending the message that the secretary continues to be the president’s man.