“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.
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.”