On Tuesday, President Obama will comply with the Constitution's instruction that he "from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union." More than perhaps any other recent president, Obama faces the choice between a meaningless exercise in the usual or a rare chance for the exceptional. He should choose the latter.
State of the Union addresses have become a mixture of pomp, theater and mind-numbing boredom, less about the actual state of the union than a lengthy laundry list of legislative proposals – in this case, mostly destined to go nowhere. Obama can stand before Congress and, like King Canute, command that the conservative tide halt in the House and that both chambers pass a long list of proposals that the President knows are already DOA.
Or he can deliver a different kind of "State of the Union." He can rise above the legislative paralysis in Washington and instead call our country to a greater future that will only be realized after he's gone.
What would such an address look like? It could start with the signal achievement of his administration – the much-maligned Affordable Care Act. But rather than tout the ACA as a paragon of virtue, as is the usual political approach, he should use it as a metaphor for the choices we face as a nation.
The ACA has its troubles in application, as Obama should readily admit, but it is having its intended effect, at least in the first instance: Millions of Americans who previously lacked health insurance are now receiving it. Millions more would be doing so if some governors, legislators and members of Congress had not done everything they could to block it. The first question this raises for us as a nation is whether we believe it is right as a society to create collective structures for aiding others.
Of course, providing coverage to those without it has a cost. The ACA was sold not just as an expansion of social insurance but as one that actually would lower the cost for the system as whole. The second question this poses, then, is whether we believe that collective action can create collective benefits. The jury is still out on Obamacare as a vehicle for making health care more affordable for the middle class, although health care inflation has slowed since its enactment. The rocky roll-out of the program's website has shaken public faith in government's ability to do much of anything. Whether we can, in fact, work together as a society to improve our collective futures is a fundamental question on which Americans remain divided, and upon which our future hangs.
Finally, the least-discussed but most promising aspect of Obamacare is its coming efforts to control costs and improve care by developing mechanisms to ensure that payment goes for performance. But governments generally have been poor at connecting spending to outcomes; whether this can be changed is the third question we face in the years ahead.
These three questions – whether we owe a collective duty to others, whether we can do better collectively than alone and whether the institutions through which we try to make these collective improvements can themselves be made to work better – underlie every issue we currently face. The president should make his case on each of them.
In today's globalized economy, competition grows relentlessly steeper. Skills that are unique to human beings increasingly command the only real value; people without such skills will fall farther and farther behind, while societies that lack concentrations of skilled individuals will soon find they lack other resources, as well. There is thus a high premium on investing in other people to preserve and raise the quality of life for all of us.
Most of the challenges we face confront us all together, not individually: If the schools are poor for large segments of the people in any region, there won't be many good jobs there for anyone for too long. If we do not address the need around the world for economic development, freedom from exploitive regimes and displacement from increasing environmental threats, those problems will eventually make their way to our gates. If we are to address these collective dangers collectively, we must improve the mechanisms for doing so; this doesn't necessarily mean more money or more powers, but using money and power better, more wisely, more efficiently and more effectively.
And that brings us to the issue of cost. During the Great Recession, national debt as a percentage of national product reached crisis levels – but that was a temporary phenomenon. The deficit as a share of GNP (though not, of course, outstanding debt) has declined markedly, to more manageable levels, although it will begin growing again due to demographics. But we still face important questions about how we spend.
The Obama administration is quietly pushing a range of "pay for performance" initiatives, which needs to become a driving concept in all public spending. Beyond that, while all spending has a stimulative effect on the economy – a favorite point of liberals these days in resisting talk of changes in spending patterns – some spending is better than others. We can run up debt to finance current consumption, we can actually pay for our current consumption or we can start making net investments in the future. Which we choose depends upon whom we value more: ourselves or future Americans.
These, then, are the choices America faces: Do we believe that spending money on others is good or wise or neither? Must some things be done by us all together in order to benefit all? Are we wiser to spend more on our needs and desires today, or on investing in the needs of the future?
Reframing the debate and focusing the country on these fundamental choices is the great challenge before our leaders today, the greatest contribution President Obama could likely make before leaving office, and a task to which he is uniquely suited in talent, temperament and timing. He could start Tuesday night.