Translating Obama's State of the Union and Rubio's Response

Solving the country's fiscal and economic issues will require a commitment to a genuinely level playing field from both Democrats and Republicans.

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Matthew Mitchell is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Economic jargon can be difficult to parse. Political speech—often by design—can be just as impenetrable. So, it stands to reason that when politicians are talking economics, it's easy to get lost. As a guide to this year's State of the Union and the Republican response, below are some translations of statements each might make:

President Obama: "We need an economy in which everyone plays by the same set of rules; one that works for everybody."

Translation: "We need to eliminate the privileges that I don't like but maintain the ones I do like. For example, let's get rid of oil and gas subsidies, but let's keep the loan guarantees for alternative energy.

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

Let's also keep tariffs of up to 250 percent on Chinese solar panel makers, even though my administration's position is that we are suffering from global warming, not regional warming, and even though these tariffs clearly discriminate against the world's lowest-cost producers of alternative energy.

And let's continue providing tax breaks for manufacturers because we should favor firms that make stuff you can actually touch over firms that provide valuable services."

Obama: "We must stop pandering to the fat cats on Wall Street that got us into this mess."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Translation: "We must continue to berate the people that I and my predecessor have bent over backwards to privilege.

It doesn't matter that, as senator, I voted for the taxpayer bailout of hundreds of private firms or that I extended the bailout beyond the financial industry. Nor does it matter that my much-heralded financial overhaul bill was completely silent on ending the extraordinary privileges afforded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the run-up to the financial crisis, including: 'implicit' federal backing, an exclusive line of credit at the Treasury, an exemption from state and local taxation, an exemption from SEC filing requirements, and lower capital requirements."

While Republicans will have less time for doublespeak, based on past GOP statements we might expect Sen. Marco Rubio's response to sound something like this:

Rubio: "We cannot afford to cut our defense budget to the bone, especially when so many American jobs depend on this spending."

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Translation: "We cannot afford to undergo modest defense reductions that, from a historical perspective, are significantly smaller than the drawdowns of the 1950s, '70s, and '90s. And even though we Republicans generally don't buy it when Democrats claim government spending creates jobs and economic growth, we do believe military spending does both of these things."

Rubio: "We must get government spending under control."

Translation: "We need to cut government programs as long as we don't cut the spending I really want, like agriculture subsidies, spending for projects in my district, and spending through the tax code on popular tax credits such as the mortgage interest deduction."

Both parties decry the untoward power of special interests but both are willing to make exceptions. And therein lies the problem. Solving the country's fiscal and economic issues will require a commitment to a genuinely level playing field.

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  • Corrected on 2/18/2013: A previous version of this blog post mischaracterized the privileges afforded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the run up to the financial crisis. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were afforded implicit, not explicit, federal backing.