What Obama Should Address in the State of the Union

We'll probably all be saying 'yes we can!'--but the important question is 'how?'

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The State of the Union is to politics what the Super Bowl is to football. Both events involve weeks of analysis and predictions before a down is played or a word is spoken; they both cause onlookers to engage in superfluous and unnecessary standing ovations; and they are both marked by copious amounts of drinking. If you think I’m stretching the truth on the last one, I encourage you to Google “State of the Union” and “drinking game.”

[Read: A Brief History of the State of the Union.]

Perhaps the most important similarity is that both events attract nonfans. Almost everyone watches the Super Bowl, not because they particularly care about the outcome of the game, but because it is deemed a must-see event, if for no other reason than to check out what Pepsi’s advertising team came up with this year. Likewise, tonight’s State of the Union is President Obama’s chance to capture a broad audience of people who typically keep their nose out of politics. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Unfortunately, trying to appeal to a one-time audience has meant that the State of the Union has become more pep-rally than serious discussion of policy.

It will not be an “adult conversation” about our nation’s problems, as Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan (who will give the Republican response) likes to say. Instead, it will be a pep talk straight out of Rudy or Remember the Titans. He’ll start by explaining the hole we’re in--our deficit is too big, our government is too out of shape, and its going to be tough for us to compete in the global economy. As with all great movie monologues, he’ll then have the great “but” moment, when he shifts into his optimistic gear and says we can out-innovate, out-build, out-compete, and out-educate the competition. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]

There is no doubt we’ll all be filled with a sense of “yes we can.” But I’m more interested to figure out how we will. In that regard, here are some things that I, as a young conservative, hope President Obama addresses in tonight’s State of the Union:

Corporate Tax Rates: If President Obama is serious about making global competitiveness a dominant theme of his speech he must address our corporate tax code. If structured in a way that eliminates the maze of loopholes, deductions, and credits in return for lowering base rates, there is a real chance for Obama to continue his bipartisan hot-streak.

Although it may create a partisan divide, I also hope President Obama follows the recommendation of the “chairman’s mark” from the Bipartisan Deficit Commission and urges the switch to a territorial tax system. This would eliminate the current system of double taxation and allow multinational companies to bring their earnings back to the United States.

Commit to Reforming at Least One Entitlement Program: In one way or another, they are all broken. I understand a complete package of reform is politically impossible, but President Obama must eliminate the aura of invincibility that surrounds these programs.

With Social Security, President Obama could lay out a plan to raise the retirement age and encourage a gradual switch to a defined contribution plan rather than the current defined benefit plan. Following this framework he wouldn’t even have to mention the dreaded word “privatization.”

Although more politically challenging, Obama could also pledge to fix the primary cause of our long-term deficits--Medicare. In that regard, Obama could gain some bipartisan cover by following a plan put forth by Clinton-era OMB director Alice Rivlin and Representative Ryan. Their plan provides vouchers to future Medicare recipients to purchase healthcare in the private market. By eliminating the current single-payer system in favor of free market price controls, the CBO predicts we could save nearly $300 billion in the next decade.

Return to 2008 Discretionary Spending Levels: White House officials have already signaled that President Obama plans to propose a five-year freeze on “nonsecurity discretionary spending.” But given that our spending has skyrocketed since 2008, this doesn’t represent an effective hedge against future deficits. Instead, President Obama should cap discretionary spending at 2008 levels. The key word to sell this idea is prioritization. If our government sees a need to revamp our infrastructure, invest in green technologies, and improve our educational system, then let’s make them priorities. As with all entities working with limited resources, “investments” (translation: spending) made in these higher priority projects are met with cuts in lower priority projects. Yes, those decisions are difficult, but they are inherent in any budgeting process.

This is one of President Obama’s few chances to reach a large swath of America. So although I understand the need to give a pregame pep talk, I hope that he steps off the sidelines and at least attempts a big play. Sure, some of these solutions may be Hail Marys, but this is akin to the Super Bowl—it’s time to go big, or go home.

  • Read A Brief History of the State of the Union.
  • Take the poll: What Should Obama's State of the Union focus be?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.