The State of the Union: A Good Speech, But a Lost Opportunity

Feb 14, 2013Bo Cutter

President Obama offered up a good list of policies, but there was no clear vision of the future to go with it.

A couple of days ago I wrote an essay in anticipation of President Obama's State of the Union speech. Assuming a "pivot" back to the economy, I defined two kinds of economic speeches he could give: the plain vanilla, commodity speech every president gives, or one that very much anticipated the future. I underlined my own hopes for the second kind of speech.

However, Tuesday night's speech was, I would argue, an extremely high-level version of the first type of economic speech. Of course, it was good -- on his worst day ever, President Obama is not capable of giving a bad speech. The specific policies and proposals he put forward were mostly right. He gave important prominence to critical areas such as climate change.

It also has to be said that, once again, President Obama was incredibly lucky in his competition. Senator Rubio, the most recent Republican savior, gave a pedestrian response accompanied by a now-famous swig of water. Senator Rubio comes off as an admirable man, and I had no problem with the water thing, but he's not in the president's league, and you continue to wonder when the Republican Party will come up with a narrative that actually has anything to do with American life. I think our system badly needs a viable Republican "story."

However, classy as the president was, he did not provide that narrative either. This speech did not give a coherent, passionate vision of America today, a vision that would impel movement in the directions he wants.

A few thoughts about the actual policies the president stressed: middle class jobs, the minimum wage, preschool education, infrastructure, manufacturing technology institutes, a market-based climate initiative, and a European Free Trade deal. It's a perfectly good list, and a pragmatic, straightforward case can be made for all of them. Some may actually happen. My sense is that a substantial trade deal with Europe is within reach, and if Europe ever recovers, a deal would add a couple of tenths to our growth rate. Some probably won't happen. I doubt that the national minimum wage will be raised, although I think it would be good for the country if it were. And we aren't going to see the miraculous reemergence of a bipartisan market-based climate approach.

But in the end, it's just a list. The following did not happen with respect to these policies: there were no priorities, there was no sense that we have to make choices, and there was no overall story that makes this set of policies seem to be something we have to do.

This is my core problem with the speech and why it's a lost opportunity. I refer everyone to David Brooks's recent column, "Carpe Diem Nation." His core point is this: "Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present." He's right, and this should have been the frame of the president's State of the Union speech.

We are confronting enormous change. We have to figure out how to cope with it. We know that this "coping" will cost a lot. But we are spending every marginal dollar on our entitlements. We can and should raise more revenues, but anyone who thinks much more will come out of the income tax by whacking the wealthy again is dreaming. So we have to make choices, but, even more important, some core of America needs to be united around a commonly held story about America and its future.

The hell of it is this isn't that hard. The story is completely obvious and would be bought into by a large number of Americans. The future of our economy is quite positive -- more so than any other developed region of the world. And for us the choices really aren't excruciating. It's just important in our polarized politics for the right and the left to pretend they are. I believe that President Obama could both have begun to build the foundation of a really big legacy and raised the probabilities of his policies becoming real if he had chosen to take the risk of telling the story of America's next chapter.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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