Jobs, Of Course, But What Else Will Obama Say?

A recent message from the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. i i

hide captionA recent message from the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
A recent message from the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

A recent message from the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Obama will give his State of the Union address, and everyone wants to know what he will talk about.

For anyone playing parlor games at home that night, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker says, it might be fun to count the number of times the word "jobs" comes up with the word "competitiveness."

Baker expects the president to underscore the need for American competitiveness amid the rise of countries like India and China. That will naturally include trade issues, he says, but also education, innovation and infrastructure.

"This is a way for him to make the case for a lot of the things that have been important to him for a long time in a more consensus-building theme," Baker tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "The idea of competitiveness, of course, is something that appeals to Republicans as well as Democrats."

Shout-Out To Business

As the president prepares to file paperwork to establish his re-election campaign, he may find himself in the same shoes as the last two-term Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who in 1995 also faced a newly elected Republican majority in the House.

In the spirit of working with that new majority, Baker says, the president has already taken steps to emphasize pro-business policy — with the appointment this week of GE chief Jeffrey Immelt to his economic competitiveness council and former JPMorgan executive Bill Daley as his new chief of staff. Obama has also promised to look at regulations that hobble job creation.

"You're hearing a little bit of a recognition that he needs to work out a new relationship with business," Baker says. "He's going to say, 'Look, this is too important for all of us to fracture over old lines of pro- and anti-business.' "

Looking Like The Good Guy

The president's last State of the Union address came after the election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown to the late Edward Kennedy's vacant Senate seat, shifting the power balance in the Senate. Back then, the president chose a bold tone.

"He basically came back and said, 'I don't give up easily. Don't think you're going to roll me,' " Baker says. But this year, after a successful lame-duck session, the imperative is a little different.

"He wants to assert his strength, but also making himself look reasonable to the broader public — so that if there are fights to come, he looks like the good guy."

Setting The Administration's Sail

No matter what, Tuesday's speech will set the tone for the year ahead. Baker points out that the State of the Union address isn't just a showpiece — it's an organizing document for the presidency.

"It's not just a speech he writes a couple of days in advance," Baker says. "It's something that goes through a process, over weeks and weeks, leading up to a speech in which the whole of government comes together and then says, 'What is important for us this year? What are we going to make our priority?' "

"So what gets in the State of the Union, what doesn't get in the State of the Union, is really a proxy fight for what the whole year is going to be about for an administration."

What Obama Would Say If We Could Write It

Ahead of Tuesday's speech, we asked four prominent policy analysts to write the script they'd like to hear the president read.

  • Getting The Fiscal House In Order

    Maya MacGuineas of the New America Foundation.
    New America Foundation

    From Maya MacGuineas of the New America Foundation:

    "We all know that our deficits are too large; we cannot continue to borrow beyond our means without facing dire economic consequences. For the past few years, my primary focus has had to be on fixing the economy, and though we are not out of the woods yet, we must now turn our attention to getting our nation's fiscal house in order.

    "Controlling the debt affects everything I and we all care about, including providing our children a first-rate education, investing in the technologies of the future, protecting the most vulnerable and building a competitive business environment. Every one of those national priorities is at risk until we right our fiscal ship. If we lose control of our debt, we lose control of our destiny.

    "So tonight I invite the leadership from the House and Senate and a small group of their choosing to join me for a budget retreat, where we will work until we come up with a bipartisan plan to bring down the debt. This will not be easy. It will require sacrifice from all of us. But we must put behind us finger-pointing and political posturing and solve this problem. I will not consider my work complete until we pass a plan to do so."

  • Lessons From The Military

    Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network i i
    National Security Network
    Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network
    National Security Network

    From Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network:

    "My fellow Americans, as president, I hear every day from the most respected, least partisan institution in our national life — the U.S. military. Our men and women in uniform are asking for civilian leadership that goes beyond petty bickering — leadership that honors and matches the sacrifice we expect from them.

    "You might be surprised — and we can all be inspired — by what they have to say about the core issues we face, like clean energy, debt reduction and economic competitiveness.

    "They're asking us not to wait to make the investments in clean energy and green jobs that will change our energy future. On energy and climate, retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan says, 'We never have 100 percent certainty. We never have it. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.' So the Pentagon isn't waiting — it's researching next-generation fuels, putting wind farms on bases and solar arrays on hangars.

    One of the wisest voices in Congress, working with the Pentagon and colleagues on both sides of the aisle on national security aspects of energy and climate, is Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Tonight, I challenge you to introduce and pass the Gabby Giffords' Energy Security Act, focused on research, technology and jobs that will make us stronger, safer and greener.

    "They're asking us to understand that our national security is founded in our economic health — and they're ready to share in the sacrifice as we rebuild our economy. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said again and again that 'the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.' He and Secretary Gates have proposed that the Pentagon, which spends half our discretionary budget, share, modestly, in budget-cutting — a suggestion that has bipartisan support, from Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank. When Mike Mullen, Bill Gates, Tom Coburn and Barney Frank agree on something, we ought to take them up on it.

    "But the central message our military has for us at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is this: They put their lives on the line so that we can lead. We can best honor their courage by showing courage ourselves — the courage to take tough decisions, the courage to reach outside our comfort zones, and even the courage not to ask the military to make the tough choices so we don't have to. Adm. Mullen also told an audience last March that 'U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military.' Our military leaders are asking us to build the country they swore to defend; from reducing the role of nuclear weapons, to prioritizing a political solution in Afghanistan, to domestic priorities such as education and nutrition that will benefit all future members of our workforce and armed forces. The state of our union demands that we meet that challenge."

  • Cleaning Up The Tax Code

    Bruce Bartlett, Columnist, The Fiscal Times
    Jennifer DePaul/The Fiscal Times

    From Bruce Bartlett, columnist at The Fiscal Times:

    "There is almost universal agreement that the tax code is a mess. It is cluttered with a vast number of special tax provisions that benefit neither the economy, society nor the Treasury. Worse, these provisions — called tax expenditures — may even hinder growth by encouraging individuals and businesses to invest their time and money inefficiently.

    "Economic decisions ought to be based on fundamentals, not because the tax code provides a subsidy for doing one thing rather than another. It is clear that one reform will have to be a reduction in tax rates on American businesses, which are handicapped by one of the higher corporate tax rates among major countries. But this must not be the beginning and end of tax reform.

    "Cleaning up the code and getting rid of special deals for particular businesses and industries is just as important as cutting rates. Furthermore, the package must be balanced — neither raising nor lowering overall revenue. We can't afford another big tax cut, and any tax bill that is not paid for will meet my veto pen.

    "And there must be no smoke-and-mirrors or gimmicks in the package, such as paying for tax cuts with spending cuts. This exercise is about fixing the tax code, and the reforms that raise revenue are just as important as those that reduce it. I believe that within these constraints it is possible to duplicate the bipartisan tax reform that was accomplished in 1986, and improve fairness, compliance and economic growth."

  • Stopping The Financial Crisis

    William Beach of The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis
    David Hills/The Heritage Foundation

    From William Beach of the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis

    "We're all feeling better about the economy, but let's take a moment to find out where we really are, particularly if you're in business.

    "While we can see modest improvements in jobs and income, the truth is that we're still deep in the woods of our fiscal crisis. And, every day, that crisis worsens and threatens our fragile economy and your bottom line.

    "The rapid growth in public debt hurts your ability to borrow for your business, which is why you should care about reforming federal entitlement programs that currently drive 60 percent of our federal budget and that, one day, will be funded solely by public debt.

    "Here's what we need to do. Let's agree that this Congress will start the important process of comprehensive tax reform. We need a tax code that improves the economic environment for business and supports strong economic growth for everyone. We also need a tax code that doesn't undermine the American Dream, which is why we should repeal the death tax.

    "At the same time, let's start fixing Social Security so that it will be around in 50 years when my children retire. That means making this venerable program a true insurance safeguard against poverty in retirement.

    "Unless we make these changes now, the great fiscal crisis of 2011 will mushroom into an enormous threat to the rising, debt-paying generation."

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