Before last week’s State of the Union Speech gets completely lost in the black noise that passes for information these days, we ought to take a closer look. We can’t be intelligent voters (or even intelligent non-voters) if we are ignorant of the substantive choices before us in the upcoming election.
In fact, President Obama gave us a comprehensive and balanced centrist agenda for where he would like to lead this country, not just in 2012 but in a second term -- since many of his proposals cannot realistically be enacted in this gridlocked Congress. Here is a brief summary:
* First, he sees a major opening for a resurgence of manufacturing in this country. To help the process along he proposed to (1) eliminate the tax incentives for outsourcing (2) provide tax incentives for companies that create manufacturing here (3) impose a minimum tax on American companies that now avoid taxes with offshore tax havens etc. He has also announced the creation by executive order of a trade enforcement unit that will go after pirated and dangerous imports.
* To support American manufacturers and other businesses, the President wants to strengthen the training role of community colleges, do more to reward good teachers and weed out the bad ones, persuade the states to prevent school dropouts before age 18, extend the tuition tax credit for college students, double the number of work study jobs and pressure colleges (using the stick of losing federal aid) to hold down tuition costs.
* Now that our borders are more secure and illegal immigration has plummeted, the President said there were “no more excuses” for avoiding comprehensive immigration reform.
* To aid small business development, a key engine of job growth, the President proposes to reinvigorate basic research, which has been the key to many of our most important new industries, from computers to solar energy, the Internet and even shale oil fracking. He would also provide temporary tax relief for small businesses that expand their operations and create new jobs.
* On green energy, Obama would double down on developing wind, solar and other alternatives. These are potentially huge industries and we cannot cede them to China and Europe, where governments are providing aggressive support. To fund these initiatives, he would end Big Oil subsidies.
* To address climate change as well as encouraging a market for green energy technologies, the President has committed the Department of Defense to a major conversion program that will also reduce DOD energy costs over time. In addition, he would offer incentives to manufacturers to upgrade the energy efficiency of their plants, etc. Another initiative will be clean energy standards for new construction.
* In response to the widespread concern about the burden of government regulations, the President has ordered every Federal agency to review and reduce regulations where possible. So far, 500 have been eliminated with an estimated savings of $10 billion over five years, and there is more to come. The President also asked for new authority to consolidate agencies and their responsibilities to improve efficiency.
* Congressional approval for funds to address our backlog of infrastructure repairs and improvements remains a priority for the President, along with a new executive order that will clear away red tape for construction projects. This should also help the construction industry.
* To spur construction in our moribund housing industry, the President is asking Congress to facilitate refinancing of existing mortgages at our historic low interest rates with minimal red tape and low fees.
* In response to the growing evidence of widespread fraud in the mortgage and banking industries during the financial ‘bubble,” the President has established a special “financial crimes unit” in the Justice Department that will work with state attorneys general to seek prosecutions and restitution.
* For the veterans of our two wars, the President proposed a veterans tax credit and a new veterans job corps that would undertake various efforts to aid veterans in getting training and employment in civilian jobs.
* To address the Federal deficit beyond the $2 trillion in reductions already underway, the President again offered the outlines of the deal he proposed to Speaker Boehner last summer, namely, to close various loopholes in the tax code and let the Bush tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000, along with enacting the “Buffett Rule”, which would impose a minimum 30 percent tax rate on those making more than $1 million a year, in return for further spending reductions and changes designed to rein in Medicare and Medicaid costs and strengthen Social Security for the long haul.
* Finally, in an effort to deal with public distrust and the deadlock in Congress, President Obama proposed a ban on insider trading by Congressmen and Senators or the ownership of stock in companies over which they have jurisdiction, along with a new 90-day deadline for an up-or-down vote on judicial and administrative appointments.
I know, this agenda is very far from perfect. And, as always, the devil is in the details, but so are the angels. To be sure, the fate of much of the President’s agenda hangs on the outcome of the next election, given the political realities. But it is a broad vision for the way forward from here.
Perhaps the most important part of the President’s speech was his reaffirmation of our fundamental character as a nation – using the SEAL team that killed bin Laden as an example -- that is being challenged these days in some quarters:
“So it is with America…No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we built it as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.”