Themes for SOTU: ‘Unity,’ ‘Growth,’ ‘Greatness’

Posted January 21, 2011 at 4:44pm

It’s clear that President Barack Obama has been “resetting” his administration since November’s election disaster. This week in the State of the Union, he should reset his goals for the nation.

I hope his theme is something like “Uniting to Grow for America’s Greatness,” but he and his speechwriters have shown they can do better than that rhetorically.

There’s no question that politically, this could be one of the most important speeches of Obama’s career — rivaling his 2004 Democratic convention speech and his 2008 speech on race.

He is, in effect, launching his 2012 re-election campaign Tuesday. Right now, the polls indicate he has made progress since November’s wipeout, thanks partly to successes during the lame-duck session of Congress, outreach to the business community and White House personnel changes.

But this speech is far more important than that for the country. The nation needs a strategic plan, a vision, that can unite it in common purpose.

Political differences are not going away, for sure. I’d guess, based on history, that the civility moment encouragingly launched after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) will fade all too shortly.

But Obama made an important point in his inspiring address last week in Tucson, Ariz.: “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [the victims] proud.”

In the State of the Union, Obama has to not only repeat that point but make a concrete proposal to talk frequently, one on one, with Republican leaders.

The country clearly wants the two parties to work together.

An early January McClatchy-Marist poll showed that 71 percent of voters, including 73 percent of independents, want Republicans to compromise with Obama and Democrats “to get things done,” while only 23 percent (though 47 percent of Republicans) want them to “stand firm” on policy regardless.

Asked whether they expected actual compromise, only 36 percent said yes, 52 percent no.

But work together on what? The fact is that the “challenges” Obama might have been referring to, if unmet, are dooming America to decline — geopolitically, economically and socially.

The public senses this, too. Rather consistently, in polls asking what life for the next generation of Americans will be like, only about 20 percent say better than it is now, while 45-50 percent say worse and 25-30 percent the same.

Our challenges are multiple and interwoven. The unemployment rate is officially 9.4 percent, but it is closer to 16 percent counting those who have given up looking for work, and at the anticipated tepid growth rates, it will take five years to return to 5 percent.

Wages for average workers have been stagnant for more than a decade while health care and college costs soar. Income inequality is as great is it was in the 1890s.

The keys to rising incomes are education, research, innovation, productivity, investment and economic growth.

But the United States now lags the developed world in education performance. We’re 14th in college graduation, 52nd in students’ math and science scores.

Our roads, bridges, railways, cellular, broadband and electric grids, and air traffic systems are all in dire need of investment, and federal outlays for scientific research are falling as a percentage of gross domestic product.

And yet, the federal government is deep in debt and heading deeper — to 90 percent of GDP by 2020 — with mounting interest (paid heavily to foreigners) choking off its ability to invest. Many states are in worse shape.

Taxing to pay the debt and debt service will hurt growth and the ability of taxpayers to buy houses, upgrade their skills and send their children to college.

It would be appropriate for Obama to scare Congress and the public with the prospect that America might lose its greatness — and be displaced by a surging, authoritarian China as the world’s No. 1 power — but what the country really needs is inspiration to get its act together.

And, we need a plan — a unifying plan, or it will never get accomplished. There’s already bipartisan support for a “race to the top” in K-12 education. It should be extended to community colleges. Obama should also challenge higher education to make its product affordable.

He should call for significant increases in federal research and development and reissue his proposal for an infrastructure bank that could attract currently idle private capital to invest in search of profit.

He should call for tax reform, including lower corporate and individual tax rates in return for reduced special interest tax breaks — most of which are subsidies (spending) in disguise.

He and Republicans can agree on cuts in discretionary spending — including some at the Pentagon — but there needs to be a major long-term attack on entitlement spending, especially Social Security and Medicare.

Benefit cuts would not affect current retirees — both parties should make that clear and not demagogue it — but benefit levels for future retirees have to decline and they should be encouraged to save.

There also can be bipartisan agreements on trade and expansion of nuclear power. And he should find a way to get a truce on immigration — as a start, to attract and keep highly skilled workers.

All this sounds like the makings of a “laundry list” State of the Union. It’s Obama’s job to integrate it into a unifying vision of greatness and make it soar.