A disappointing State of the Union address

Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 10:35 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA entered office promising to be a different kind of politician - one who would speak honestly with the American people about the hard choices they face and would help make those hard calls. Tuesday night's State of the Union Address would have been the moment to make good on that promise. He disappointed.

It's not that everything he said in the speech was wrong; on the contrary, we agree with much of it. To remain competitive in the world, and to reverse the trend of rising inequality at home, the government will have to invest, as Mr. Obama proposed, in scientific research, education and infrastructure. To stay safe abroad, the country can't stint on national defense or foreign aid. Republican visions of dramatically smaller government are unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

But where will the money come from? "We will make sure this is fully paid for," Mr. Obama said as he grandly pledged to "redouble" road and bridge repair. With higher gasoline taxes? Traditionally, that has been the way. Mr. Obama didn't elaborate.

The president promised to freeze discretionary spending - exempting, that is, defense, veterans affairs, homeland security, Medicare and Social Security - for five years. Given that he'd already promised a three-year freeze, this was more incremental than earthshaking and, as he acknowledged, in any case affects only 12 percent of the federal budget.

The reality, as Mr. Obama understands, is that the country is headed for fiscal catastrophe unless it does some politically unpopular things: unwind the Bush tax cuts, including for the middle class; reduce projected Social Security benefits for future retirees, exempting the poor and disabled; rein in the cost of health care; limit popular income tax deductions. Mr. Obama knows this, but last night he did little to prepare Americans for any of it. The best you could say is that he left the door open to work with Congress on these issues.

In his first year in office, Mr. Obama said he couldn't confront the nation's long-term fiscal peril because of imminent financial collapse. In his second year, he said he needed health-care reform first, to "bend the curve" of rising health-care costs. He called for a bipartisan commission to study the debt and promised to pivot in his third year to fiscal reform.

Now that bipartisan commission has reported, but Mr. Obama didn't fully endorse any of its recommendations. To the contrary, he promised more jobs for teachers and construction workers. He warned against "slashing" Social Security benefits. Corporate tax reform is fine, but if it's revenue-neutral, it only postpones - and makes more politically difficult - the task of narrowing the nation's deficit.

So what happens now? Maybe some members of Congress will display the courage the president has lacked. Maybe Mr. Obama, in the budget he proposes next month, will grapple more realistically with the hard choices than he did Tuesday night. But even if he does, how can he expect public support if he hasn't made the case? From the man who promised to change Washington, it seemed all too drearily familiar.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company