Wednesday, February 13, 2013

State of the Union V

This was President Obama's fifth State of the Union address and, in my opinion, the best yet.  It wasn't great for the initiatives presented, although I agreed with a number of these, but rather the manner in which the President used his one hour of prime-time to move his political agenda.  Who will be able to think of last night's speech without having universal Pre-K and "they deserve a vote" ringing in their memory?  While we all may have different views on how this Country should operate, we should all be able to respect a well-played hand.

As I was looking over a transcript of last night's speech, I thought to myself that there should be a contest to see who can summarize the speech in the fewest words while communicating the substance.  Political theater is often not much for substance, and we're all busy, so just tell us what the plan is and show off for your friends on your own time.

Here are some big take-aways that I picked up:
  • Medicare Reform: Cut drug subsidies and introduce means testing.  Change to a qualitative model of paying for medical services (formerly referred to as "death panels" by alarmists who can't-read-good).  This is just specific enough to create some obligations for the President.  Means-testing is the right thing to do and the U.S. Government, as the largest consumer of medical care, can set the parameters for how medical care is cost out.  

  • Tax Reform:  While few would recognize it as such, the President was throwing the Republicans a bone on this one.  House Republicans have been trying to trade "tax reform" for "tax increases" since 2010.  In fact, this entire paragraph of the speech, from closing loopholes to protecting jobs at home, could have been pulled from a Romney speech.
  • American Jobs: This part was a little murky for me, but in sum, the President proposed creating 15 manufacturing hubs under the Departments of Defense and Energy in towns stripped of jobs by globalization.  Exactly what these hubs will manufacture was left for further deliberation.  The President also proposed a "Fix-it-First" infrastructure program to bring our roads and bridges up to the 21st Century (or maybe just the late 20th Century) through partnerships with private capital.  It will be left up to speculation if this means private toll roads are a future prospect and whether or not that may be just what America needs to create jobs.  President Obama also proposed raising the minimum wage in the United States to $9/hour and tie it to inflation so that anyone working 40 hours a week has enough money to live.
  • Energy/Climate Change:  The President put his comments about Climate Change directly on top of his comments about energy independence.  I don't think we should expect a comprehensive Energy Policy to come out of this Administration, but the emphasis on alternative energy is there.  For what feels like the first time in this Presidency, Barack Obama urged Congress to pass cap-and-trade (McCain/Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act).  He wisely chose not to use those politically charged words (forcing pundits to take a breath before slamming him), but the code-words were there.  I don't think cap-and-trade is the solution to climate change, but in the absence of any movement, it is something.  The President also noted that his administration will be creating a Race-to-the-Top-esque Plan for cutting energy usage.  "Watt-to-the-Test".
  • Universal Pre-K:  I liked this idea so much that I will just share with you what the President said:
Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance. 

Notably, this is not just a reform targeted at education, but also a measure of equality to take the burden of child care off of single mothers.

  • Higher Ed Reform:  President Obama has proposed Congress change the Higher Education Act so that federal funds are redirected to those colleges and universities that meet certain metrics based on affordability and value.  The White House will issue a "College Score Card" that communicates these metrics to parents.  Seems like a "market-based approach" to me, and something that is a long time coming.
  • Afghanistan: Troop draw-down to end the war by the end of 2014.
  • Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union:  Needs more research, but the words alone communicate "NAFTA on Steroids".
  • Firearm Reform:  In what may have been the most powerful part of the President's speech, he talked just a skosh over the heads of the American people.  He repeatedly noted victims of gun violence in the audience and across the Country and urged that they "deserve a vote".  Nevertheless, he never said exactly what he was trying to get passed.  Universal Background Checks?  Popular, should pass.  Automatic Weapons Ban?  Less popular, will not pass.  Senator Chuck Shumer seemed to believe that the President gave the push necessary to get background checks to a vote, which may have been the goal, but that seems awful dramatic for such minimal gains.
I've run out of time, but summarized most of the big issues discussed last night.  I also watching Senator Marco Rubio's response and was impressed by his overall presentation, but disappointed by substance (there wasn't much).  Republicans had an opportunity to match substantive policy with substantive policy and they failed.

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!