Opinion roundup: State of the Union

  • Article by: VARIOUS WRITERS
  • Updated: February 13, 2013 - 8:10 PM

A roundup of reactions to President Obama's address.

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House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens at right as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013.

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Here's a roundup of commentaries and editorials in response to President Obama's State of the Union address:

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Dana Milbank, Washington Post:

There is something entirely appropriate about holding the State of the Union address on the same day as Mardi Gras. One is a display of wretched excess, when giddy and rowdy participants give in to reckless and irresponsible behavior. The other is a street festival in New Orleans.

There is, thankfully, less nudity in the House chamber for the president's annual address, and (slightly) less inebriation. But this spectacle, unlike the one in Louisiana, is not all harmless fun.

President Obama made clear that he is not entertaining serious spending cuts or major entitlement reforms. Republicans, in their responses, repeated that they are not budging on taxes. The standoff gives new meaning to Fat Tuesday: The nation's finances are a mess, but -- what the heck? -- let's have another round.

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New York Times Editorial:

Americans who have become weary of Washington's endless battles over spending and taxes -- and the stagnating economy that stalemate has produced -- got a chance to hear about a different path on Tuesday night. Obama's message was clear: It doesn't have to be this way.

The country doesn't have to get bogged down by demands for endless austerity and government contraction. It doesn't have to defer investments in education and public works. The poor don't have to remain on society's lower rungs, and the middle class can aspire to do better. Obama said his proposals to bring about growth with government action would not have to raise the deficit.

What is required to move the country forward is political will, which has been missing for too long. While many of the president's proposals were familiar, and will probably be snuffed out by politics, his speech explained to a wide audience what could be achieved if there were even a minimal consensus in Washington.

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Ezra Klein, Washington Post:

That was an incredibly ambitious speech. If Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed Tuesday, the United States would be a noticeably different country in a couple of years.

In some ways, what was most noticeable about the speech was what wasn't in it: nothing. It was difficult to come up with a single policy favored by Obama's party that was left out of this speech. The speech included the politically possible and the politically implausible. It had the poll-tested policies, like small tweaks to encourage manufacturing jobs, and policies that have a tougher time in the polls, such as putting a price on carbon.

It's often the case that candidates are more ambitious than presidents. But Obama's second term is showing the reverse progression. The speech went further than Obama's 2012 Democratic convention speech. There, his address was notable mainly for modest proposals. Here, his speech was notable for the sweeping nature of the proposed changes. Obama's agenda hasn't been this bold since 2009.

The difference between 2009 and 2013, of course, is that Democrats no longer control the House. Most of these proposals have little chance of becoming law, at least right now.

But the difference between 2011 and 2013 is that Obama isn't content to let Republicans drive the agenda. He intends to set the terms of the discussion. The past two years have been all deficit, all the time. But the president doesn't intend to let the next two years be similarly dominated by the debt.

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Los Angeles Times Editorial: 

Obama delivered the most forceful defense of liberal values uttered on this occasion by any president since Lyndon Johnson. He argued for progress on the environment, common sense on guns, decency on immigration. On those issues, he has the support of the American people.

Leaders have to do more than set the right goals; they have to find ways to achieve them. There, Obama's course is unclear. In the first term, he courted Republican support and was rebuffed. With his inaugural address, he suggested a new approach: rallying the public in support of common values, transcending partisanship. This speech extended that idea, but achieving it won't be easy.

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John Dickerson, Slate:

The president's address was more than 6,000 words, but its message could fit inside a single tweet: I am full of ideas that will directly affect your life, but these people in the audience are blocking them.

The president brought a ton of proposals on Tuesday night: universal preschool, tax reform, immigration reform, a minimum-wage increase, a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, infrastructure investments, new housing incentives, manufacturing incentives, energy plans, a program for scoring college education by affordability and paycheck equity.

How is the president going to get any of that done? He offered repeated rhetorical pitches that seemed utterly disconnected from reality. "We can get this done," Obama said several times, as if all the old partisan arguments would melt away in the face of his new assurance. It's not going to happen.

The president ended his speech on a powerful note, telling the stories of the heroes and victims of gun violence. "They deserve a vote," he said of legislation aimed at limiting the mayhem. "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote!" "The families of Newtown deserve a vote!" "The families of Aurora deserve a vote!" The crowd joined the call, responding to the mix of loss and bravery. It was the kind of swell of emotion that could lead to change after years of resistance. After nearly an hour of the traditional fare, it was like an entirely different speech.

Too bad he felt like he needed the other 5,500 words.

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Washington Post Editorial:

In promising the same amount of Medicare savings as the Simpson-Bowles commission proposed, Obama did not mention that this would be a mere $341 billion over 10 years.

All told, he envisions shaving an additional $1.5 trillion off projected deficits over 10 years, which would leave the national debt at a historically aberrant 70-odd percent of gross domestic product.

In short, he declined to push back against the mind-set within his party that considers acceptable "stabilizing" the debt at this level by the time Obama's second term ends.

At best, that would buy a respite of a few years before the debt resumed its upward climb.

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Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times

This address won't be long remembered. It didn't offer much in the way of new ideas. It was short on memorable lines. But those are all good things. After four years in the White House and a hard-won re-election, Obama has recalibrated his ambitions to match the moment. A president who once promised to transform American politics and stop the oceans' rise has downsized his goals, not because he wanted to but because circumstance has made it necessary.

Second terms are often disastrous, and they sometimes fall afoul of a president's conviction that re-election gave him a mandate to do big things. George W. Bush used the first State of the Union address of his second term to call for the partial privatization of Social Security; the collapse of that effort was an early sign that his presidency was in trouble. Bill Clinton opened his second term with ambitious goals for education and entitlement reforms that went nowhere. He spent much of his remaining tenure battling impeachment instead.

Obama has set more realistic targets. If he meets the most significant of them -- immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare -- and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that's not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.

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William Saletan, Slate:

Obama never used the word "drones" in his State of the Union address. But drones were all over it. They're the unspoken force shaping his agenda.

A minute into the speech, Obama reported, "After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home." That's all the president had to say about foreign affairs for the next 38 minutes.

Who's coming home? Our people. Who's taking their place? Machines. By outsourcing our global police work to remotely piloted aircraft, Obama was able to spend almost his entire speech talking about domestic challenges instead.

It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time he got to his first paragraph about events abroad: "America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of Al-Qaida."

Afghanistan? The core of Al-Qaida isn't being destroyed in Afghanistan. It's being destroyed in Pakistan. We don't have troops in Pakistan. We have drones.

The president went on: "We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of Al-Qaida and their affiliates."

Counterterrorism efforts. In other words, drones.

To defeat Al-Qaida and its allies, said Obama, "We don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead ... through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans."

A range of capabilities. Direct action. In other words, drones.

The only weapons Obama was willing to discuss openly were the firearms he wants to restrict at home.

The drones make us feel safe. We don't have to worry about them, because they don't bleed. And we don't have to worry about what they're doing, because we can't see it. What happens in Pakistan stays in Pakistan.

That's what we tell ourselves. We don't really want to know what's going on over there, any more than we want to see those secret legal memos or find out what the president means by counterterrorism operations. We just want to come home, stay home and deal with our problems here, knowing that up in the sky, someone or something is watching over us.

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San Jose Mercury News:

For a while there, Obama's address harked back to the Bill Clinton recitations of program after program, from preschool to free trade, mostly good ideas but barely outlined before the next one rolled out.

Then came guns.

"They deserve a vote." The chant rang out, over and over, as Obama challenged opponents of sensible gun regulation to at least bring to the House and Senate floor his reasonable proposals for background checks and other common-sense controls.

"They" were well-represented in the chamber. At first lady Michelle Obama's side were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the bright Chicago teenager who was shot and killed as an innocent bystander in a gang clash a week after performing at Obama's inauguration. There was Gabby Giffords, in the chambers not as a congresswoman, as she should have been, but as a recovering victim of gun violence and now a crusader for reasonable regulation. Others, there in spirit, were the families of Newtown and Aurora, still reeling from mass killings.

Obama's focus on the economy for much of the speech was heartening, although it was light on detail. The most memorable and inspiring moments of the speech, however, involved stopping the madness of unchecked gun violence. In embracing the cause, Obama took on what may be the greatest challenge of his second term. He will need the nation's help to meet it.

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Kansas City Star:

The "surprises" were few but meaningful to his base, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour and a plan to provide access to universal prekindergarten. In addition, he promised families of college-age students needed information about college affordability.

It was heartening to hear Obama reaffirm his commitment to pay equity for women, access to military benefits for gay families and passage of meaningful immigration reform.

Early in the speech, he urged Congress to avoid the brutal sequestration cuts looming next month that would savage social-service programs and deeply cut military spending.

"And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors," the president said. "The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."

Let's hope Congress was paying attention.

The president was short on specifics on many of his proposals and will be hard-pressed to live up to his promise of new programs not adding one dime to government spending overall.

His weakest comments emerged in vague foreign-policy statements about Syria, Iran and North Korea.

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Bloomberg News:

By some measures, this was an ambitious speech, calling for an increase in the minimum wage; universal preschool; legislation to slow climate change; immigration reform; voting reform; negotiations for a free-trade agreement with Europe, and winning seasons for all hometown teams. (OK, we made that last one up. But surely the president supports it.)

But Obama seemed at pains to be prosaic, sensible, unthreatening. Did it work? If Sen. Marco Rubio's rote response to the State of the Union is any indication, Obama's tone didn't win him much of a hearing with Republicans.

Calling for a vote on new gun-safety laws is either politically astute (who could be against a simple vote?) or politically pointless (why ask for only a simple vote?). Maybe both. In making his request so modest, Obama risks making his opponents suspicious and his supporters nervous.

Or maybe he's just, you know, trying to be reasonable.

 

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