How Obama Could Go Big in the State of the Union

By explaining these three hard truths, the president could give an address that actually means something.

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President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks on gun control on April 8, 2013, at the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Conn.
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks on gun control on April 8, 2013, at the University of Hartford, in Hartford, Conn.

The eyes of the world will be on President Obama tonight. In a world cluttered with information and distractions, this is one remaining opportunity for the world's most important political leader to say something meaningful to a large swath of America, and even the world. Yet the State of the Union almost always disappoints.

What do we usually get? A laundry list of small accomplishments and modest aspirations.

Every management book ever written, even the ones with cartoons, will tell you that the key to good management is focusing on a handful of key strategic objectives. President Obama has an opportunity to do "the vision thing." The country needs it. We know he is capable of inspiring rhetoric. So if I could tear up the typical forgettable text and "go big," this is what I would urge the president to say:

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

1) The fabric of our society is at risk: America only works if every citizen believes that he or she has a fair shot of coming out on top. Voters only tolerate massive wealth in the hands of the few if they believe that it is hard-earned and good for society overall. Capitalism only works in the long run if most people can look around and feel that the incessant disruption caused by markets is making their lives better.

All of this is in jeopardy. Your job, Mr. President, is to wake us up to this economic reality. The causes are complex, but the biggest one is inexorable: Technological change and globalization have radically tilted the labor market in favor of those who are highly skilled.

Do not give us a policy talk. Do not blame Wall Street or other rich people; if you do, the Republicans and much of America will stop listening. Do not list a series of small bore programs designed to help the middle class.

Just persuade us that this is a major social challenge. Tell us – rightfully – that this is not a Republican or Democratic problem. If anything, the Republicans have more to lose if Main Street voters lose faith in the system.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Make us believe that harnessing the current global economic forces to broaden and deepen prosperity is the next big American challenge. Because it is.

2) We should not be "the worst generation": The founding generation of Americans put in place a remarkable system of governance. Subsequent generations invested in highways, public education, universities, basic research – all of which were gifts to us.

Some generations literally landed on beaches in faraway places to protect freedom and democracy. That feels overwrought as I write it, but it's not. Other presidents gave the State of the Union address while our soldiers – drawn from the whole population, not just volunteers – were dying in Europe and the Pacific.

By comparison, we are small. We continue to live better than we should by borrowing from the Chinese and passing the bill – with interest – on to the future. Other generations sacrificed so that we could live better. We are living better by creating future sacrifice.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

It is unconscionable that we cannot put the government's accounts on sound footing. We ought to begin with entitlement reform. Let's make these programs solvent for the next 100 years.

Now, that last line is a bit of a trap. This will be the one place where the Republicans will stand up and cheer. While they are still hooting and hollering, follow quickly with this: Our inattention to climate change is no different than our reckless deficits. They both involve living better today at the expense of the future. They both are potentially destabilizing to the global order. And they both get harder to deal with the longer we wait.

I'm not sure if the Republicans will sit down or stay standing, but that's all true

3) Our whole approach to governance has to change. Our political mindset is broken. Our representatives have been sent to Washington to solve problems and make peoples' lives better. So let's get back to doing that.

We can start with the Affordable Care Act. It's a mess. In hindsight, the Democrats should not have overhauled 18 percent of our economy without a single Republican vote. But what else were they to do given that the Republicans refused to engage in fixing a system that was clearly broken?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

But that's all in the past. Let's take what we now have and work constructively to fix it. The Republicans are delusional to think that we can or should go back to a system in which a huge segment of the population has no health insurance, or is at risk of ending up that way. It's out of sync with the rest of the world, unbefitting of one of the richest societies in the history of human civilization and the wrong thing to do just as we are trying to confront the challenges of income inequality.

Having said all that, the Affordable Care Act needs an overhaul. Americans must believe that this law makes their lives better. Right now, most don't.

My point here is not about health care; it's about the political process. President Obama needs to ask the Republicans to participate in governance. And they need to do it. Health care is a good place to start, but the point is more basic: Make things better.

That's it. Just tell us just those three things. Don't try to make the case for a higher minimum wage, or give us a long list of forgettable programs and tax incentives. Instead, tell us to step up and meet the massive challenges of the post-Cold War era. That we will remember.

  • Read Stephanie Slade: Opposing a Minimum Wage Hike Doesn't Mean Republicans Hate the Poor
  • Read Peter Fenn: From Rand Paul to Ted Cruz, There Are Too Many GOP State of the Union Responses
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.