John Baer: State of the union is sound ... & fury, signifying politics

Posted: February 14, 2013

IN A SPEECH certain to keep the big-government/small- government battle raging, President Obama on Tuesday night laid out bold, costly plans for the second half of his incumbency.

Buoyed by his re-election and a Republican Party in reboot mode, the president pushed for "investments" to create more jobs, to educate more people for future jobs and to repair the nation's aging infrastructure.

If this sounds familiar, you've heard Obama's past State of the Union addresses.

Question is whether he can mobilize enough public support to convince enough Republicans that it's in their long-term interests - meaning 2014 midterm elections - to go along with at least parts of his proposals.

Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Thomas Mann says: "The best bet legislatively is an infrastructure deal that starts in the Senate. It's a no-brainer in policy terms, but Republicans operate in a different reality these days."

That reality, as with all politicians, is rooted in survival. So it seems likely that immigration reform, which Obama also pushed, is one area that both parties can agree on, but only because it affects a voting bloc critical to both parties.

But he also asked for action certain to draw disagreement, including votes on gun-purchase background checks and bans on "weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines."

His spending proposals include $50 billion for infrastructure repair; $15 billion to rebuild local communities plagued by damaged, abandoned or vacant properties; and $1 billion to create 15 "institutes" to spur U.S. manufacturing.

He also called for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour.

"Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," he said. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."

I imagine that that statement might be challenged, especially the "should."

I imagine, too, that a divided Congress, facing yet-another potentially disastrous fiscal deadline March 1, won't be rushing to pass the president's plans.

This was Obama's fourth State of the Union address. It comes just weeks after his second inaugural address, which hit progressive themes from gay rights to climate change. It was heartily cheered by liberals and tagged as divisive by conservatives.

But as Robert Lehrman, an American University adjunct communications professor and a former Al Gore speechwriter, puts it, "An inaugural address is like an overture. The State of the Union is details and all the lyrics."

Tuesday night's speech maybe didn't sing, but it did offer a full score of second-term wishes.

The announcement of a large troop drawdown in Afghanistan, while welcome, clearly is more wish than certainty that that endless mess is nearly over.

The expected call for action on guns was moving, but it, too, is an issue more wishful than likely, as evidenced by his call for "a vote" on gun issues, not a law.

So it often goes with State of the Union addresses.

In fact, there is much to dislike in this annual Washington show of self-congratulation and political preening: the constant, annoying applause; the cutesy, bipartisan let's-sit-together stuff as offered by Pennsylvania's senators, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey.

There's the same-old, same- old about reforming the tax code, about making higher education more affordable, about ending tax breaks for big oil and gas companies, and about becoming energy-independent.

Anyone holding his breath on these issues died long ago.

There was homage to the middle-class, "the true engine of America's economic growth," but no mention of the fact that Social Security taxes just went up after a promise of no new middle-class taxes.

Still, the speech comes as Obama has higher Gallup Poll approval ratings (52 percent) than during the past two State of the Union addresses.

So, I expect it was generally well-received.

Nonetheless, it's hard not to think that while Democrats loved it, Republicans hated it, so here we go again.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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