The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What I’d love to—but won’t—hear in tonight’s SOTU

Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP

My fellow Americans, let me tell you three things you and I know are undeniably true.

First, the price of gas is remarkably low, considerably lower than it was a decade ago. The combination of increased supply—a result, I’ll note, of my administration’s “all of the above” policy on energy—and diminished demand has pushed the price of oil down to levels that were unimaginable even months ago. Moreover, while we can’t know the future course of the price of energy, these supply and demand conditions appear to be firmly in place.

Second, the federal gas tax, the main source of funding for America’s highways and mass transit systems, has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, and I’m not talking about the price of gas itself here, which hasn’t gone up, but of the materials it takes to keep our transportation infrastructure in world class shape. Neither has it been adjusted for the increased mileage of our fleet of cars and trucks.

And this fact leads to the third reality we all know, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it: there’s no way we can have the infrastructure we want and need on a tax that hasn’t budged for over 20 years.

America, as I speak to you tonight, let me say out loud what I believe many of you are thinking when you consider these facts. We must raise the gas tax [hold for applause and boos; mostly boos].

We should do so slowly, in tiny increments, something like a penny or two a year for a few years. Believe me, I know many still struggle to make ends meet, but again, let’s be real: a penny a gallon on a price that’s half of what it was a few years ago will hardly be noticeable.

I also know there’s a great aversion in this country to raising any tax at any time, but we cannot allow such ideology to corrupt our common sense. We all know in our hearts and minds that safe, well-maintained roads, bridges, and subways that our households and businesses can depend upon are not free.

And let’s not forget the ancillary benefits of nudging up a price on carbon, one that given its environmental toll is socially underpriced right now .

My fellow Americans, members of Congress: I realize my time here is winding down [hold for applause from R’s and Michelle]. I’m not running for office, so perhaps some of you in the gallery are thinking: “Sure, we get this. But we have to get re-elected. You don’t.”

Well, I get that. But what I’m telling you tonight is that if we respect the common sense of the American people and lay out the simple logic as I’ve tried to do here, many will understand. You get what you pay for and you don’t get what you don’t pay for. That’s plain American knowhow, the type that folks in this great country will understand, if we just ask them to do so.