Ideas for Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address

The president should focus on infrastructure, national security and education.

By SHARE

With the Congress about to conclude its business for the year and the president departing for Hawaii, now might be as good a time as any to contemplate how the two branches might build on their respective achievements in the waning days of 2010. How might they use this lull to plan a better and more secure future for the American people? I have a couple of suggestions. Perhaps the president will consider them as he prepares his State of the Union Address, slated for delivery early in 2011.

As a candidate, Obama aspired to be a “transformational” president in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. That, of course, was before the partisan brawls added to the American lexicon such words and phrases “bailouts,” “death panels,” “filthy, irresponsible rich” and the like. He will have with this speech an opportunity to reclaim the transformational mantra, and in ways that might attract support among people of all parties. He should not be afraid to be bold. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

The American people are in no mood to hear from a bookkeeper. They already know what they can and cannot afford. They want to know what kind of country they will be living in and what its place in the world will be when Obama leaves office, whether in 2013 or 2017. This speech may be his last chance to spell out a coherent vision and a way to achieve it. The federal budget Obama submits a few weeks after the State of the Union should reflect the nations’ true needs, as the president understands them, rather than a compilation of what various pressure groups’ close to his party wants. Obama should then challenge Congress to make the necessary cuts elsewhere to pay for them.

What the American people most want are assurances from a president more of them still like than dislike that hard economic times will give way to better ones and that they will reap substantial gains for the sacrifices they make. Of Ronald Reagan, whose centennial takes place in 2011, Margaret Thatcher said that he had few ideas, but that the ones he had were all big and great. What are Obama’s “big ideas”? (The near financial collapse of 2008 created the pressure for new regulations. Healthcare, as Obama never tired of reminding us, had been on the table for a century.) What might Obama propose? A few suggestions:

Infrastructure.

President Obama has raised this subject several times. He and his team cited nation’s need of better roads, bridges, airports, and high speed trains as the reason for the nearly $1 trillion “stimulus” package Congress passed. (I hereby challenge the president and his key aides to spend a few minutes on the disgrace many us know as the D.C. Metro system. They will instantly comprehend what I am talking about. What a way to welcome visitors to the “capital of the free world.”)

Obama’s first attempt to address this issues soon devolved, with Congressional help, into a state and local government worker job protection program, financed in part by the tax dollars of people in the private sector. Many of them, of course, earn either less than their public sector counterparts or are themselves among the unemployed. (Duh!)

In the spirit of Henry Clay (“The American System”) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (The Interstate Highway System), Obama should recommend a comprehensive plan, a means to pay for it, and a list of dates when the nation can see its power grid upgraded and enhanced, the Amtrak Acela comparable to high speed trains in France and bullet trains in Japan, and JFK, LAX, and Logan Airports of a caliber equal to their counterparts in Europe and Asia. He has already hinted at an “infrastructure bank.” That plus a bit of JFK-like goal-setting and reasonable deadlines to achieve them might finally get this car out of the garage.

The private sector, which depends on high quality infrastructure to retain its competitive edge, may be enticed to share some of the costs--especially if the government provides sufficient necessary tax incentives. On this one, Obama may find Republicans willing to help him. How appealing it may be for them to offer the investor class genuine “tax cuts” in addition to merely extending existing tax rates. (Only in Washington are reduced levels of increases called “cuts” and retaining the status quo called “tax cuts.”) A comprehensive and sustained infrastructure improvement program will stimulate the economy in numerous ways. It could produce sufficient short-term construction and related jobs as long as a decade and permanent, jobs at all levels for decades. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Bush Tax Cuts.]

National Security

Several times over the past two years, Obama has told us that we are on the verge of another “Sputnik” moment. How does he propose to meet it? [Read more about national security and the military.]

Our last “Sputnik” moment occurred in 1957, when the USSR beat the U.S. into space exploration by launching its first unmanned satellite. Fears were rampant that, if allowed to dominate space, the Soviet Union would defeat the United States in the Cold War. How did the man in the White House then, Dwight D. Eisenhower, meet this challenge? By the end of 1958, he had persuaded a Congress his political opposition controlled to do all of the following:

  • Establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (Readers will note that the current administration has all but put this once stellar agency out of business. The government adds insult to injury by building a memorial to Eisenhower’s memory in front of the very agency it is dismembering. The president should order these decisions reversed.)
  • Created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). (As its name implies, this entity spearheaded much of the scientific and other research that helped retain for the United States its edge in patents and innovation that spearheaded the prosperity of the 1950’s. Suffice it to say that among its creations was the home computer on which this column is written and the cellular telephone its writer uses to contact his editor. As soon as its products showed signs of being profitable, the agency facilitated their transfer to the private sector.)
  • National Defense Education Act. (This statute marked the last time the federal government made a serious and sustained effort to improve the quality of public education from K through Ph.D. Anyone with the ability to attain admission to a graduate school of their choice and was willing to spend part of their careers in the service of the federal government received a free training. The program trained thousands of engineers, physicists, area specialists, and linguists over a short amount of time. The program’s very existence put pressure on elementary, middle, and secondary schools to train pools of talent that could find their way into high paying technical jobs. As he had in promoting the interstate highway system, Ike sold the program as a defense bill.)
  • Education

    For 30 years, the press has been running stories about how American students perform in multiple fields, when compared to their counterparts in dozens of countries. The numerous educational reforms that have been attempted in the ensuing decades have yet to yield dramatic improvements. Working with his dynamic Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, and a Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has worked to improve quality of the nation’s schools before, Obama has sufficient elements already in place to produce a significant breakthrough. That the widely acclaimed documentary on the current state of inner city schools, Waiting for Superman, was not the work of a conservative Republican, but of a activist of a liberal bent can only work to the president’s favor, should he take this one on. What is he waiting for?

    National Defense

    Obama, in use of his favorite phrase, should “make clear” his opposition to bipartisan efforts to take a meat axe to critical Defense Department programs when a scalpel is needed. He should call for the appointment of a high level independent commission of the caliber of the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group to work with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to develop an inventory of the nation’s strategic military, economic, diplomatic, and moral interests throughout the world. He should then recommend that they be funded at adequate levels. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

    The nation’s long slog through Iraq and Afghanistan has led to bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to avoid their reoccurrence by slashing vital weapons programs in the name of deficit reduction. Would-be threats to American vital security interests are watching to see how the United States responds to this challenge. When the time comes to do serious cutting at the Pentagon, Obama might want to hand the task over to a new entity, established for this purpose. The model for its operation might be Base Closure Commission of a generation ago. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

    While none of this will be easy for the president to achiever, it is not as though he and his team do not know what to do or how to do it. Transformational presidents such as Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan carved out the path. All Obama and Congress need is find the courage to follow it. Anyone willing to bet that they will?

    • Read more about the deficit and national debt.
    • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
    • Check out this month's best political cartoons.