President Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night, and it’s arguably his last chance to make a real impact in that forum: a year from now the midterm elections will have concluded and his final Congress will be set, and in 2016 the press will care more about the primary elections underway than anything Obama says.
The White House seems to appreciate that fact, and Obama will reportedly try to “pump some vitality into a lackluster second term” by taking on income inequality and the lagging economy as a defining theme of his speech.
That’s certainly a weighty topic, so how should Obama approach it? What should he call for?
Obama should go big. Early reports of the president’s speech are already distressing some progressives. Apparently, Obama is going to avoid tackling economic inequality head on, and will instead speak in terms of “paths of opportunity” for lower- and middle-class Americans.
The policy proposals that have leaked out seem small-bore as well: Obama will reportedly announce, for example, some executive actions on things like job-training programs.
But the most effective State of the Union addresses—think Lyndon Johnson’s call for an “unending war on poverty,” or Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over”—go big on a bold new idea. That’s what many progressives want to see tomorrow night.
Economist Dean Baker told The Nation that Obama should come right out and say that the country should embrace large-scale deficit spending to boost demand in the economy, and thus maximize employment and reduce inequality. Obama should acknowledge that “Republicans will never go along with this,” but make the case for urgent action anyhow.
“I think it’s important to outline the case that we need to get back to full employment,” Baker said. (He and Jared Bernstein have a lengthy policy examination of this topic.) “This is what he should have done back in 2009. Explain to people why we are where we are.”
Granted that’s a dramatic “ask” from Obama—but for Baker, that’s the point. “The guy’s not running for re-election, so I don’t see the downside. Republicans will be running around saying he’s a big spender, but who gives a fuck?” Baker said. “Why doesn’t he say that? People are really suffering out there, because what, [Obama’s] opinion polls will go down a half a percent [if he takes this approach]?”
There are midterm elections looming just months away, but Baker noted that if Obama doesn’t call for aggressive action on reducing unemployment, he likely handcuffs down-ticket Democrats from doing so, lest they open themselves up to criticism for demanding something that “even President Obama isn’t calling for.”