What topics should be in Obama's State of the Union address?

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Post asked business leaders, policy experts and others to name an issue that President Obama should include in his Jan. 25 State of the Union address. Below are responses from Maya MacGuineas, Drew Altman, Howard Dean, Frances Beinecke, Robert L. Reynolds, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Frank Sharry, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Jamie Radtke, Ed Rogers, Bob Lehrman and Matthew Dowd.


President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

President Obama should make controlling the national debt the central theme of his speech. He should go big, not small, and lay the foundation for viable compromises.

The president's fiscal commission offered a plan to reduce the debt by $4 trillion. Obama should build on that momentum - not just talk about pay freezes or incremental tax reforms - by calling for passage of a comprehensive plan this year (to be phased in gradually) with everything on the table. His plans need to reflect political balance, not just be an opening bid for Republicans to react to, which would turn budget reform into even more of a political punching bag. On Social Security, for instance, he shouldn't stick to stale talk of raising taxes on the rich alone but should include a balanced proposal with a moderate means test, retirement age increase, cost-of-living fixes and new revenue. Yup, that is something for everyone to hate, but that's what it's going to take.

Obama is certain to emphasize that cutting the deficit too quickly would harm the economy. True. But so, too, would failing to put a plan in place, leaving uncertainty to hinder the economic recovery and increasing the risk of an outright fiscal crisis. He needs to emphasize debt reduction as part of his economic recovery strategy, not use the economy as an excuse to delay.


President and chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation

The president's overarching challenge is how to rise above the Washington politics the public is so frustrated with and still fight hard for his policies. On health reform the fireworks will be in Washington, but much of the work of implementing last year's law will be done by the states. Focusing on working with states, especially the states that can really deliver, while sticking strongly to the core goals and protections of the law, would build allies and provide success stories and give the president an opportunity to align himself with the pragmatism more typical of the states.

Another opportunity is to become consumers' defender in chief against giant hikes in health premiums. This problem can be blamed unfairly on health reform, or the administration can use its platform to lead the offensive in scrutinizing unpopular premium increases.

The president needs to get behind deficit reduction, but proposals to cap spending growth could have profoundly negative effects on the people served by Medicare and Medicaid, depending on how it is done. Almost half of all seniors and disabled people on Medicare have incomes of less than $21,000 per year. The president has an opportunity to be for deficit reduction and speak for people on these programs at the same time. It is both good policy and good politics to tell seniors that while spending reductions may be necessary he has their back.


Former chairman of the Democratic National Committee; governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003

The president has a wonderful opportunity to reset the focus on jobs in the State of the Union address. The new majority in the House has helped immensely by making the same mistake Democrats did - not focusing on what Americans are worried about most. In this case, they have focused on abortion and reopening the health-care debate. The speech should be focused entirely on jobs and the economy. The president should avoid the temptation to have a laundry list of key phrases and sentences designed to satisfy every interest group under the sun.

Instead, do the whole thing on jobs, America's competitiveness and improving the economic prospects of the average American. In particular, focus on young people who are starting to fear that the American dream may not be there for them. Start with short-term help such as a tax code overhaul and job programs; then discuss items that are part of a moderate, four-to-10-year horizon, and name new American industries to support. Finish with longer-term fixes such as investments that will make our education system more responsive to a changing economy. Address no other topics.


Former president of the Richmond Tea Party; candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia

The goal is to create jobs. The problem is deficit spending. The solution is to release the stranglehold government spending has on our businesses. The federal government is now spending $300 billion every month but collecting only $200 billion. Nearly three years of stimulus spending has not created jobs. It is time to cut our spending, reduce the tax burden on our businesses and unleash the job-creating potential of the free market. In the State of the Union address and the official Republican response, I want to learn this from the president and both parties: How much are you willing to propose in dramatic cuts in spending, beginning with the current budget, in order to reduce deficit spending and create jobs?


President of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

President Obama must rally a divided nation around the kind of common purpose and collective vision that has the potential to unite us all. A good place to start is by challenging us to do what presidents since Richard Nixon have asked - to break our costly and dangerous dependence on oil.

Doing so will create millions of jobs, as we develop renewable fuels, sustainable communities, and the next generation of energy-efficient cars, workplaces and homes. It will make our companies more competitive and position our workers for success in the fast-growing global market for clean-energy solutions. It will stem oil imports that drain our economy of $1 billion each day. It will make us more secure and less dependent on those foreign oil suppliers that don't share our values or goals. It will safeguard the health of our children.

This won't be accomplished overnight; great achievements seldom are. But the BP oil disaster was a shocking glimpse into the destruction we invite unless we change course now in a way that strengthens the foundational protections that defend our water, wildlife, lands and air.


Lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003

Twenty months after he was inaugurated, President John F. Kennedy had the audacity to proclaim that we could put a man on the moon within a decade. He knew that a great enterprise can unite a country as its citizens work together to succeed and be proud of the outcome. The day that Americans walked on the moon thrilled us as to what science, ingenuity and determination can accomplish. The spinoffs from the Apollo program have benefited American industry and technology for 50 years, and those government workers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, remain our heroes today.

Some argue that our best days are past, that we should devote our energy to shrinking our government and privatizing our dreams. I don't believe that. I would like to see President Obama challenge Americans to shoot for the sun, to discover and harness new forms of clean, renewable energy and achieve complete energy independence by 2021. Just as we did 50 years ago, let's engage the best minds and wills of our generation in a bold venture for the good of the planet.


Chief executive of Putnam Investments

There is one initiative that could simultaneously move America toward fiscal sanity, dramatically boost national confidence and help restore our government's own credibility: ensuring the long-term solvency of Social Security.

As November's election results suggest, Americans are deeply concerned about the multitrillion-dollar surge in federal deficits and deeply weary of politicians' refusal to come to grips with them. That makes action to ensure Social Security's solvency more politically feasible than ever.

Absent reform, future benefits from Social Security are projected to drop by nearly one-quarter in 2037. But Social Security is by far the easiest element of America's long-term deficit challenge to put right. It faces a shortfall only about one-tenth of the government's total unfunded liabilities - roughly $5 trillion. We could bring Social Security into balance through surprisingly modest reductions of benefits for more well-off citizens along with a gradual rise in full retirement age (to 69 by 2050, in one version) and a more rapid rise in the total amount of wages subject to FICA tax.

The psychological impact of making Social Security solvent would be immediate and profound. Reform would show Americans that our political system is not dysfunctional. We would have set a precedent for bipartisan action to curb our much larger long-term deficit challenges. Global markets would gain a fresh respect for our economy and the dollar itself. And only you can do it, Mr. President.


President of the American Action Forum; former director of the Congressional Budget Office; senior economic adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign

President Obama should propose to repeal the Class Act. America's burgeoning debt is a fundamental threat to prosperity - a rot eating at our economic foundations and freedom; the United States will be simply unable to oppose its bankers' wishes. At the heart of the debt threat is spending growth, and what's driving spending growth are entitlement programs. Without a plan to control entitlements, any discussion of fiscal sanity is simply talk.

The Class Act is a dangerous, new open-ended entitlement furnishing in-home care for the disabled that was included in health-care reform strictly because of its virtues as a budget gimmick. While collecting $70 billion in premiums looked good on paper, a fair reading of the full act was provided by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, who called it a Ponzi scheme. Its danger was highlighted by the fact that the president's handpicked fiscal reform commission proposed eliminating the Class Act.

The president needs to provide a road map to a solvent future. He needs to propose real cuts to spending. He needs those cuts to rein in entitlement overpromises. The president needs to find common ground with Republicans. The president needs to call for repealing the Class Act.


Executive director of America's Voice

President Obama should challenge Republicans such as Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl to work with him on immigration reform. Immigration has become the defining issue for Latinos, a fast-growing group of voters who are pivotal in swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida. Action on the Dream Act in late 2010 put Republicans on the defensive and generated a wave of Latino support that helped Democrats hold onto the Senate. Obama, having failed to keep his promise to fight for comprehensive immigration reform early in his presidency, needs more than a drive-by mention near the end of the speech.

Republicans, still in the grip of the party's hard-liners and probably needing 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to retake the White House, are vulnerable on this issue. Obama should call for either: (A) an approach that combines the "border security first" stance of many Republicans, with triggers to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that most Democrats support; or (B) enactment of a suitable version of the Dream Act. This will produce a long-overdue bipartisan breakthrough on immigration or make the issue one that can be used against the GOP in 2012.


President Lyndon Johnson's top White House assistant for domestic affairs; secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Carter administration

President Obama should avoid any legislative laundry list and make jobs the government's Job No. 1, by proposing a 21st-century Works Progress Administration to modernize our infrastructure - roads; high-speed rail and commuter lines; efficient sewer, power and communications systems. He must make clear that this is a capital investment to be amortized over many years, not expensed as single-year spending like the cost of heating buildings or administering Medicare claims.

He should preempt the deficit hawks by announcing that he is directing his chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget to meet with House and Senate leaders to seek agreement on a trillion dollars in savings over the next 10 years. He should direct his secretaries of state and defense to review every military station around the world to make certain that there is no American in harm's way unless it is absolutely essential for our national security.

His speech should have at least three applause lines that will bring lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to their feet; there is no more potent visual to demonstrate that he is taking the lead in trying to get both parties to work together.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

President Obama needs to use the State of the Union address to confirm that he accepts reality about the power-sharing arrangement that now exists in Washington.

Democrats in Congress have shown that they do not respect their defeat. Their reelection of Nancy Pelosi as their leader, confirming her point of view, was harmful to America and disastrous politically. The question is: Has Obama drawn different conclusions? Will he say so in his speech Tuesday?

Obama should be blunt and realistic about spending; he should call for a reduction in corporate tax rates; he should be clear on whether he has a plan for or is even in favor of lower energy prices; and he should acknowledge the obvious about the necessity of Guantanamo and confirm that the United States will be ruthless in its pursuit of terrorists.

The State of the Union address will be the first opportunity for Obama to offer an agenda that confirms a sincere movement to the right. The next and probably more important test will come when he unveils his budget proposal in a few weeks. The budget will tell us if the moderate rhetoric that will no doubt be on display Tuesday is a cynical head-fake or if Obama really wants to try to govern from the center.


Clinton White House speech writer, 1993-1995; co-founder of the PunditWire blog; author of "The Political Speechwriter's Companion"

They save lives every day - by fighting a forest fire in California, helping planes avoid collision or interpreting a new law that makes food safe. Who? The federal workforce. The Republican Study Group's recent spending-cut proposal targets those workers - by firing 3,000 food inspectors, for example. Apparently, the way to create jobs is to cut them.

So while the State of the Union address will clearly be about jobs and the economy, President Obama should defend those workers. But he should do it first by conceding - conceding a point to the other side is one of the best ways to make listeners think you're a reasonable guy. Luckily, there's a moderate Republican proposal: the one from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who is to give the minority response on Tuesday. Obama should accept Ryan's spending-cut goals, forcing both sides to applaud.

But then the president should point to some heroic federal workers up in the balcony - perhaps including one of Gabrielle Giffords's staff. After the applause, Obama should announce that he will not accept draconian cuts that take a meat axe to the federal workforce. "We're about putting Americans to work," he should say, "not putting these brave workers out to pasture."


Political analyst for ABC News; columnist for National Journal; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Gallup polling has shown that, on their own, State of the Union addresses hardly ever have a big public impact. It is the cumulative effect of a president's actions and communications that citizens respond to and are moved by; the key audience for the president Tuesday will be the elected leaders sitting in the Capitol. With that in mind, I think the president should continue to focus like a laser on the economy and on improving both the conversation and relationships in Washington so that folks begin to trust in the federal government again. The No. 1 issue today is the economy. The tragedy in Tucson sparked a near universal positive outpouring. The president needs to keep both of those bipartisan conversations moving. President Obama can keep calling for leaders of both parties to come together, behave more decently, talk to each other more, understand their shared American values, and thus work hand in hand to address the damaging effects on people's lives of a stagnant economy. If he commits to lead in this way, and does not get bogged down in the weeds of policy debates and continues to connect the dots of his approach over the past 60 days, this speech could have a profound effect on Washington's culture.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company