Obama urges a move away from narrow focus on politics of austerity

President Barack Obama focused on the economy in his first State of the Union address of his second term. (The Washington Post)

Just about every argument in Washington since the 2010 midterm elections, which returned control of the House to Republicans, has centered on reducing the federal deficit. On Tuesday night, President Obama leaned into his second term by declaring that a single-minded focus on deficit reduction would jeopardize the nation’s future. And he sounded an urgent call to rebuild.

Reelected by an ascendent coalition, the president spoke from a position of strength in his fourth State of the Union address. The economy is improving. The Republican Party is in disarray. The time has come, Obama indicated, to pivot away from the politics of austerity.

“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of the agenda,” he said. “But let’s be clear: Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”

The president rejected the fiscal brinkmanship that defined the past two years. Instead, he framed future fiscal debates as opportunities to shape a “smarter government” — one with new investments in science and innovation, with a rising minimum wage, with tax reform that eliminates loopholes and deductions for what the president labeled “the well-off and well-connected.”

Second-term presidents have a narrow window of time to enact significant change before they become lame ducks, and Obama, while echoing campaign themes of reinforcing the middle class, made an urgent case for a more pragmatic version of populism, one that emphasizes economic prosperity as the cornerstone of a fair society.


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Over and over, he noted that the time to rebuild is now.

The “Fix-It-First” program that Obama outlined to put people to work on “urgent repairs,” such as structurally deficient bridges, bore echoes of President Bill Clinton’s call in his 1999 State of the Union address to “save Social Security first.” Clinton’s was an effective line, one that stopped — at least until President George W. Bush took office two years later — a Republican drive to use the budget surplus to cut taxes.

Although Obama’s speech lacked the conciliatory notes of some of his earlier State of the Union addresses, he did make overtures to Republicans and cited Mitt Romney, his presidential challenger, by name.

He combined tough talk about securing the border, which brought Republicans to their feet, with a pledge to entertain reasonable reforms to Medicare, the federal entitlement program that fellow Democrats are fighting to protect.

“Those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms,” he said.

Obama also pledged to cut U.S. dependence on energy imports by expanding oil and gas development. And he singled out one area where he and Romney found agreement in last year’s campaign: linking increases in the minimum wage to the cost of living.

Obama set a bipartisan tone at the start of his speech, quoting from President John F. Kennedy’s address to Congress 51 years earlier when he said, “The Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress.”

But as in his inaugural address three weeks earlier, Obama gave no ground to the Republican opposition. He believes this is the time for an urgent agenda for progressive change that has the support of the American people. And he warned Congress, in sometimes blunt language, that if lawmakers do not act, he will.

On climate change, he said, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

At the emotional end of his speech, Obama renewed his call for tougher gun laws — a politically treacherous issue that Republicans and even some Democrats are shying away from. He did so with passion, demanding again and again that Congress hold a vote.

Donald A. Baer, a senior aide in the Clinton White House, said Obama will achieve more legislative victories in his second term if he seizes the role of national leader and pulls his opponents across partisan dividing lines.

“He’s feeling more assertive, he’s feeling empowered by the election, and he’s trying to leverage his political power to bend outcomes in the direction that he thinks they need to go,” said Baer, now chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, a global communications firm. “But that raises the question of what the best way is to accomplish the deep changes that he wants to accomplish and what’s the best way for those to be sustainable changes.”

Although Obama won a decisive victory in November, this remains an era of political division. The country is sharply and stubbornly split, with the president’s approval rating far lower than his commanding 68 percent when he addressed his first joint session of Congress in 2009.

A slim majority of Americans, 52 percent, give Obama’s second-term agenda positive initial marks in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll; just 36 percent said they approved of the GOP’s policy agenda for the next four years. And more than half of those polled, 56 percent, said they are dissatisfied with the state of the country’s political system.

Obama’s suggestion that deficit reduction should no longer dominate the discussion is one that some Republicans have also begun to make.

In a speech last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) called for Republicans to “focus our attention really on what lies beyond the fiscal debates.” And in an address to the Republican National Committee in January, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned against “an obsession with government bookkeeping.”

Although inaugural addresses are supposed to be poetry, State of the Union speeches are prose. They are designed to give Americans a set of concrete proposals by which to measure how much progress the president and Congress make over the coming year. They are not calls to greater national purpose, with rare exceptions.

In the end, most of them end up being forgettable. And very often, they become a rehash of unfinished business. Obama acknowledged that on Tuesday night.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few.”

“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”

President Obama

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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