Tuesday, President Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union address, a speech White House aides say will bookend his inaugural address in January. AEI scholars covering issues on the economy, education, health care, and foreign policy weigh in on what policy issues may come up in the president’s address.
Question 1: What will the president say about the economy?
AEI expert Tim Carney explains:
President Obama always uses his big addresses to talk about battling the special interests — and that rhetoric is always undermined by his actions. This year, expect him to talk about ending tax breaks for big business, even though he fought hard to save a raft of special-interest tax breaks that would have expired at year’s end.
Economics and tax policy expert Alex Brill answers:
Congress is gearing up to attempt tax reform but thus far the White House has been silent on the topic. More important than the battle over the level of taxes is the need to reform the structure of the tax system.
Jim Pethokoukis, expert on the economy, answers:
President Obama is unlikely to talk about two of the US federal tax code’s worst features: Its bias against investment and parents. The recent fiscal cliff budget deal worsens both, and the president’s idea of tax reform is raising marginal tax rates and limiting deductions to make the growing tax burden escape proof.
Matt Jensen, economic researcher, offers:
The president might claim that small steps could rein in deficits over the next ten years, but this obscures the fact that his administration has done little to ensure debt grows more slowly than the economy in the long run. Spending reform is needed to control rising deficits, and tax reform is needed to grow the size of the economy.
Question 2: What kind of education reforms might the president unveil?
The state of the union is more about setting a clear vision than about policy specifics. Remember last year, President Obama proposed that every state require all students to attend high school before they graduate or turn 18; no one thought that was actually going to happen. Instead, President Obama needs to make clear what he believes the federal government’s role in promoting a high quality education should be. Anyone can say that they want to have more and better teachers. He needs to convince America why Washington, and not their state and local leaders, has the ability to get them there.
[UPDATED] Read more on Michael’s 2013 predictions.
The President should commit Uncle Sam to taking a hard look at the decades of regulations which have grown up around federal K-12 funding, with an eye to retooling anachronistic rules that unnecessarily hamper school and system improvement. It would cost nothing, free up dollars to serve kids better, and inspire and empower impassioned educators.
[UPDATED] Andrew Kelly, expert on higher education scholar suggest:
Last year, President Obama famously put colleges and universities “on notice” to contain their costs. But in spite of the rhetoric, the administration’s plans to hold colleges accountable for fiscal stewardship have gone nowhere. Meanwhile, changes to student loan policies have made the terms of repayment even more generous to borrowers, giving colleges even less reason to keep prices under control and placing taxpayers on the hook for increasing amounts of student debt. The question for the State of the Union is whether President Obama will reiterate his intention to confront skyrocketing college costs, and what policy options he will pursue to do so.
Question 3: Will we hear about Obamacare?
The president probably will continue his practice of saying as little as possible about Obamacare. What he definitely will “forget” to mention is why so many states continue to resist his offers to expand their overloaded Medicaid programs and enlist as “sorceror’s apprentices” in running federally designed health exchanges. Oh, and anything about the continued unpopularity of the individual mandate (or tax, or penalty, or whatever we call it these days). He certainly won’t talk about the insurance premium savings he promised over four years ago. Those checks don’t seem to be in the mail yet.
[UPDATED] Joseph Antos, health expert offers:
President Obama should level with the American people about the real problems we face in health care and how we can work together to solve them. It is time to move to a health system that is responsive to consumers and that lives within its means.
Instead of advancing another round of fee cuts that will never be implemented, change the incentives that drive Medicare spending and give seniors a choice of plans that compete on an even basis. Let states do a better job of operating their Medicaid programs by giving them full flexibility rather than requiring them to seek waivers for even small changes. Give states that accept that flexibility a predictable federal subsidy based on the number of people served, not the volume of services provided. Introduce a more realistic understanding of what it takes to implement the Affordable Care Act.
At least 20 states will not create a state insurance exchange, and most of the others face great difficulties in making it work. They need more time, and so does the federal government. A delay, allowing states to move at their own pace, is the only responsible action—but one that will be especially difficult for this president.
Question 4: Will Obama talk about protecting the nation against future terrorist attacks?
Danielle Pletka, vice president of AEI’s foreign and defense policy studies, answers:
I suspect that what we are going to see from the president regarding national security in the State of the Union is less; less about foreign policy overall, less of America in the world, less about the importance of American values, less about American leadership.”
Michael Rubin, Middle East expert and author of the forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil: A history of a half-century of US attempts to engage diplomatically with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, explains:
Historically, second-term presidents think about their legacy, and many seek to leave their mark on foreign policy. Bill Clinton, for example, wanted to preside over Palestinian-Israeli peace, rapprochement with Iran, and restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. He got only the third. He may have Obamacare in his pocket, but with the economy shaky and sequestration looming, Obama is still going to try to look towards foreign policy to cement his legacy.
First and foremost in the State of the Union, I’d expect an announcement about a renewed drive toward Arab-Israeli peace. This time around won’t be like in the past, however, and so—as I explained in my recent Congressional testimony—any attempt to push forward right now is likely to backfire.
Obama also may use his bully pulpit to again reach out to Iran. It will be interesting to see how many times he’ll allow the Islamic Republic to swat away his outstretched hand before he takes the hint.
Expect some mention of Russia and a push toward further nuclear disarmament. What once was an embarrassing “hot-mic” incident could now become policy. Again, however, reality might intercede as Vladimir Putin doesn’t embrace the same lofty ideals as Obama may.
Any omission of China, Japan, and North Korea would be surprising. Conflicts might erupt anywhere in the globe, but nowhere is a full-scale conflagration more possible than in East Asia. All that’s needed is an Archduke Ferdinand moment.
Obama will also brag about withdrawing from Afghanistan “on schedule.” Whether he’s ready to recognize the consequences of his actions, though, is an open question. They may, unfortunately, be the subject of the 2014 State of the Union address whether Obama likes it or not.
Question 5: Any surprises this year?
Karlyn Bowman, polls and public opinion expert, says:
It’s unlikely there will be any surprises in the president’s State of the Union speech. He will likely reiterate the ambitious agenda he described in his audacious inaugural address.
Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor for National Review and columnist for Bloomberg View responds:
I assume that the State of the Union will be full of hubris. Even more than in his first term, Obama believes that history is on his side and that his opponents have no ideas worth implementing or grappling with. Hence the uncompromising liberalism of his inaugural address. I expect to see more of the same in the State of the Union address, and specific mention of gun control, path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, increased energy subsidies, and further tax increases as administration priorities.