Shadow Government

President Prioritizes Popularity Over Legacy

Faced with the threat that his low popularity could hurt his party and the reality that there is no money to spend on new initiatives, President Obama chose in his State of Union address to go small and stress action, no matter how fleeting, rather than working across the aisle to achieve permanent policy changes. This may mitigate Democratic losses at the ballot box in the fall, but doing so sacrifices the ripe opportunity to reignite economic vitality by removing uncertainty about debt and immigration, while sparking growth through expanded trade.

There is no doubt that President Obama's low poll numbers are in significant part due to his inability to get things done. It is also clear that Republicans show little enthusiasm to embrace his prescriptions, whether raising the minimum wage, a further extension of unemployment insurance, or increased funding for early childhood education.

Possible executive orders increasing pay for some federal workers, ordering the Treasury to create the "MyRA" retirement savings account, and working with Governors to expand early childhood education can be trumpeted as action and may boost the President's standing temporarily, but they have little lasting impact.

Bypassing Congress could backfire for the President and his Democratic allies as well, as it could inadvertently boost the popularity of Congress as the media focus shifts from legislative obstruction to executive fiat. 

More importantly, this tactical approach could miss the opportunity to take bold actions that would be to the strategic advantage to the entire nation. The State of the Union did not present a plan to address the nation's long-term debt. Immigration reform and trade expansion -- two proposals that could boost the economy and create jobs -- received only passing attention.

Currently the most serious impediment to business investment and hiring is the great uncertainty over how the country will ultimately address its unsustainable fiscal future as baby boomer retirements balloon federal deficits. Nearly every political leader would confide in private that there is a deal to be had that includes both revenue generating tax reform and a reduction in entitlement obligations. Yet this opportunity was ignored last night.

Failing to address this looming financial reality will  make the recent expansion of federal healthcare obligations seem like reckless folly. Conversely, taking the lead now to address our long-term fiscal imbalances would help the country afford President Obama's signature policy achievement and add another significant legacy accomplishment to his belt.

While only addressed in passing, the president's approach to immigration may in the end prove fruitful. By only lightly touching on it, President Obama perhaps increased the likelihood of success. 

Aggressively pushing for results could jeopardize action by Republicans.  With Speaker Boehner telegraphing his hope to begin work, now is not the time for Obama to derail efforts in the House by inserting himself into the debate. 

Perhaps most disappointing omission in the State of the Union address was the issue of trade.  While he mentioned the need for Trade Promotion Authority, he did not even mention the pending Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). 

These economic propellants are essential to the nation's job creators. The Administration's able Trade Representative Michael Froman has been vocal about their resolve to advance. Yet accomplishing these transformative agreements will not happen without the president bringing Congress and the public along with him.

 

Passing NAFTA was one of President Clinton's most significant accomplishments.  Passing TPP and TTIP could be amongst President Obama's most lasting and beneficial legacies, but they will not happen unless he champions their benefits.

Trade expansion, with its potential to jumpstart economic growth and project power around the world, has been left in the shadows to its detriment.  Giving it short shrift last night was a disappointment.

Yes, taking a series of small steps and shouting about them from the rooftops may slow the decline in the president's poll numbers and help Democrats at the margins in Congressional contests this fall. But going small did a disservice to the big problems the nation faces.

Moving towards the twilight of his administration, President Obama may find that he missed a golden opportunity to build a lasting legacy that could put this nation on a path to deliver enriching opportunities for its citizens and strong leadership to the world.

LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What I Want to Hear in the State of the Union

Here are some lines I would like to hear from President Obama in tonight's State of the Union:

  • "We will stand with the people of Afghanistan and use both our military and civilian power through the elections this year and beyond to ensure that girls continue to go to school, democracy gets implanted, and peace and prosperity come to that faraway corner of the globe. In return, Afghanistan will never again be a training ground and safe haven for terrorists. We will leave a small force of at least 10,000 troops to secure the gains in education, infrastructure, democracy, and human rights."
  • "We will be uncompromising in expanding freedom in the world. We will redouble our assistance efforts in partnership with our friends and allies to support the expansion of democracy, fight corruption, and support human rights. Political dissidents in Ukraine, Belarus, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere will have no better friend than the United States of America. The work of creating democracy is slow and often hard. Many governments seek to thwart us and have become more sophisticated in holding back the tide of history. At the same time, religious minorities need to be protected. Ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East is morally wrong and we will work to stop it."
  • "We seek a democratic Iran at peace with its neighbors and we will use our assistance to help dissidents in Iran. We are working with Iran to come to an agreement on its nuclear program. At the same time, I want the people of Iran to know that we will continue to seek a democratic and free Iran. Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviets but he always sought to support dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and we use our assistance to do the same in Iran."
  • "We will work with Congress to make the United States a commercial and trade partner of choice in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. We will remove restrictions to American investments in energy such as the so-called Carbon Cap because if we do not offer competitive financing, others such as China will."
  • "We will work with our allies in Europe to support Ukraine. Ukraine has a choice -- it can be a vassal state of Russia or it can have closer ties to Europe and the rest of the world. It can continue to be a kleptocracy or it can be a society under the rule of law. We will use our bilateral and multilateral aid to help Ukraine become a constructive member of the society of nations."

Note: a short except of this appears here.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images