Politics and Public Opinion, The Presidency

Scholars respond to the State of the Union

U.S. President Barack Obama, who won a second term in office by defeating Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, waves as he addresses supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

U.S. President Barack Obama, who won a second term in office by defeating Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, waves as he addresses supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

In a State of the Union address last night that covered everything from health care reform to education, climate change to gun control legislation, President Obama laid out his extremely ambitious liberal agenda that has many wondering just how in the world he thinks he will accomplish all of this? In a post- State of the Union round-up, I asked our scholars where they stood on the issue. Here’s what they said.


Question 1: What in the speech stood out to you most?

Jim Capretta, health care expert says:

The president suggested a balanced approach to Medicare spending. In reality, he raised taxes last month, when what need now is entitlement reforms, not more tax increases. Because the reforms that he talked about in his speech on Medicare are dead-ends, unfortunately, they won’t solve the problems. He also said that the Affordable Care Act is already reducing the costs of health care, when in reality, what has happened is that the economy has slowed down. And when the economy slows down, people spend less, on items including health care.


Alan Viard, expert on federal tax and budget policy responds:

Although President Obama professed support for a balanced deficit reduction plan, his proposals emphasized tax increases on the richest 1 or 2 percent of the population and entitlement program modifications that leave benefits largely untouched. These policies will not be sufficient to address the long-term fiscal imbalance. Like many Republicans, the president appears to be unwilling to confront the need for entitlement benefit cutbacks and tax increases on the broadly defined middle class.


Edward Conrad, author of the New York best-selling book, “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong” offers:

The President proposes public sector investment to justify tax increases. In truth, he needs tax increases to fund runaway entitlement spending, which crowds out investment—both public and private. Hopefully, the public recognizes the fallacy in his logic.


Karlyn Bowman, expert on polling and public opinion responds:

Present Obama said that nothing in his speech would add a “dime to the deficit”—powerful alliteration, but at the same time will he be able to accomplish it? Public polls say that the deficit jumped up 19% as a concern of the people. Let’s see how it turns out, and whether he’s successful in what he said tonight.

The president also said that if Congress would send him an immigration bill, he would sign it. Opinion polls suggest that the public is most concerned with border security and a path to citizenship with respect to immigration. It would seem that he put those two things in the right order because that’s where public opinion is.

Furthermore, in a moving moment, President Obama cited a 102-year old woman who faced issues voting in a timely fashion this election. AEI initiated a bill that would remedy the problem long ago. I’m glad to see that the president is finally catching up.


Matt Jensen, economics expert says:

The president’s claim that he will not add a “dime to the deficit” is both misleading and wholly inadequate. Given the expected long-term debt growth, fixing the problem would be more welcomed than an empty promise not to exacerbate it.


Tim Carney, scholar on economics says:

President Obama said he wanted to get rid of tax breaks, but then promised a string of green energy give-aways, laying out subsidies for special interests. He can’t have it both ways if he wants to battle special interest.


Question 2: What would you have liked to hear President Obama address?

Danielle Pletka, foreign and defense expert responds:

The president didn’t give a short shrift to foreign policy in his State of the Union, but the foreign policy sections were merely a device to talk about the President’s aim to unwind international obligations and focus the military on questions relating to social policy rather than national defense. Mentions of Iran and North Korea didn’t rise to the level of formulaic, but rather repeated the empty phrases of years past that all rogue states have learned to ignore. Ditto the mentions of al Qaeda’s rise. China was almost an afterthought, and the big announcement of the night — a major drawdown in Afghanistan — articulated no rationale for the massive reduction of forces, because there is no military rationale.

The president’s nod to cybersecurity was well placed, but in the context of a speech about more and more government intrusiveness, it will be read as a reason to regulate and regulate again. One bright light was a quick mention of trade promotion; sadly, prospects for the White House to support those new treaties are close to zero. Last, but not least, there was the question of sequestration. Much as many predicted, that issue is no longer about disastrous cuts to our nation’s forces, but about the imperative of raising taxes on the American people. And what for? Women in combat, same sex benefits, a green Pentagon, and “partnerships” with business that bear no relation to DoD’s core mission. Surprise surprise.


Michael Rubin, foreign and defense expert offers:

Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. By announcing a firm US withdrawal from Afghanistan even before negotiations about the future relationship are complete, Obama has ensured the worst possible outcome: A resurgent Taliban and an Afghanistan in chaos. The idea that the Afghan security forces are ready may hold water in the White House, but is laughable to Afghans and the outside world.

Obama called Al Qaeda a shadow of its former self. Alas, by condemning Afghanistan to a security vacuum, he is setting US national security back to the weeks and months before 9/11. Al Qaeda is hardly a shell: Just ask the family of murdered US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

There is nothing worse in policy than a gap between rhetoric and reality. Obama’s commitment to Syria might have meant more had he acted two years ago to prevent the needless slaughter of 70,000 Syrian civilians.


Mark Perry, expert on economics and finance says:

I didn’t hear about what most people are concerned about- and that is jobs. It seems to be a critical issue for people. The rate of unemployment is up to 7.9%; we are now three years into a jobless recovery. It just didn’t seem like there was a real concern or focus on jobs.

We heard about energy, and not about the Keystone Energy Pipeline. We didn’t hear why further development on it is held up because of Obama, even though we heard him bragging about the positive improvements on energy. Why didn’t he talk why his blocking and delaying that?

Also it is generally accepted among economists that raising the minimum wage would be disastrous to unskilled laborers and prove to be no real solution, causing job loss and making things worse than they already are.


Michael Strain, expert on labor and earnings says:

There are many important short term problems facing the United States, and the president addressed some of them. But we have one immediate crisis, and that is the state of the labor market. Too many folks have been unemployed for too long. This is a national emergency. I wish the president had addressed it satisfactorily.


Question 3: General impressions from last night?

Ramesh Ponnuru, Editor of the National Review offers:

Once again tonight revealed that this president has no idea how to create jobs that don’t involve government spending, the he has no agenda that will pass in the Congress, and has no idea that this welfare state has passed the point of affordability.


Frederick W. Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, asserted that withdrawing half of the American forces over a year would reduce the chances of success as insurgents still had safe havens in the eastern part of Afghanistan, and it was not clear whether Afghan forces could maintain control of the south part of the country with a extremely limited coalition presence.

But if the command really does have the flexibility to control the pace of the withdrawal and to bring about a short term increase of specialized units, then a chance of campaign success remains.

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