The president's annual report to Congress on the state of the union has become almost formulaic in recent years. He outlines a list of projects, initiatives and new programs he hopes to achieve. Members of his own party applaud. Members of the other party sit quietly or respond with tepid applause.
President Barack Obama's fourth such address on Tuesday was not much different except for one thing: It was given a little more than two weeks before the president and Congress face a deadline for reaching broad agreement on budget reforms before automatic, across-the-board spending cuts take place March 1.
With that in mind, it would have been nice for the president to frame his proposals in a way other than that his plans are sensible and Republican plans are destructive. It would have been nice to see an olive branch, or at least some suggestion of common ground.
For that matter, it would have been nice to hear the president address what he would consider acceptable reforms to the big three entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. During the recent presidential campaign, former President Bill Clinton gave Obama a boost by urging voters to do the math on the proposals of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But the president seems intent on ignoring the hard math when it comes to closing the annual budget deficit and saving the national debt from a course that will lead the nation to insolvency. Those things cannot happen without addressing the runaway growth in spending for those entitlements, even if the president gets his way with tax increases.
In the end, the president's speech didn't move the debate at all. Republicans remain entrenched in their insistence on not raising taxes, while Democrats seem equally obstinate about making important cuts. In reality, a measured and thoughtful approach that combines both cuts and revenue enhancement is the best path to a solution, combined with real tax reform. But with two weeks to go, it appears both sides would rather see the nation suffer arbitrary cuts to just about everything but those entitlement programs than to budge an inch on their stated positions.
The president offered a host of ideas Tuesday night, most of which he knows are ideologically impossible to get past Republicans in the House. For example, he asked for an increase in the federal minimum wage. Republicans may be predisposed to support the position of business owners, but plenty of studies have demonstrated the costs businesses incur when the minimum wage is raised, and how that cost is borne, especially by young, entry-level workers who find that available jobs disappear. A more interesting proposal would have been one that combined a wage increase with the expansion of inner-city enterprise zones in which employers would be free to offer a much lower wage to teenage workers. But that would have required an acknowledgment that solutions demand cooperation.
State of the Union addresses have been, for the most part, forgettable exercises. Only when presidents step away from their expected positions — such as when President Clinton announced that the era of big government was over — do they become memorable.
Other than immigration reform and harsh words for North Korea, there were few things in Obama's speech for which realistic agreements are likely without unusual statesmanship. That would be hardly noteworthy, except for the magnitude of the fiscal problems that are so quickly approaching.