Middle class 'must be the North Star'

  • Washington Post
  • February 12, 2013 - 11:13 PM

WASHINGTON - Just about every argument in Washington since the 2010 midterm elections that returned control of the House to Republicans has centered on reducing the deficit.

On Tuesday night, President Obama leaned into his second term by declaring that a single-minded focus on deficit reduction would jeopardize America's future. And he sounded an urgent call to rebuild.

In his fourth State of the Union address, re-elected by an ascendant coalition, the president spoke from a position of strength. The economy is improving. The Republican Party is in disarray.

The time has come, Obama indicated, to pivot away from the politics of austerity.

"Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of the agenda," he said. "But let's be clear: Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts."

Obama rejected the fiscal brinkmanship that defined the last two years.

Instead, he framed the fiscal debates to come as opportunities to shape a "smarter government" -- one with new investments in science and innovation, with a rising minimum wage, with a tax overhaul that eliminates loopholes and deductions for those the president labeled "the well-off and well-connected."

An urgent case

Second-term presidents have a narrow window of time to enact significant change before they become lame ducks, and Obama, while echoing campaign themes of reinforcing the middle class, made an urgent case for a more pragmatic version of populism, one that emphasizes economic prosperity as the cornerstone of a fair society.

Obama repeatedly said the time to rebuild is now.

The "Fix-It-First" program Obama outlined to put people to work on "urgent repairs," like structurally deficient bridges, bore echoes of former President Bill Clinton's call in his 1999 State of the Union address to "save Social Security first." Clinton's was an effective line, one that stopped -- at least until President George W. Bush took office two years later -- a Republican drive to use the budget surplus to cut taxes.

While Obama's speech lacked the conciliatory notes of some of his earlier State of the Union addresses, Obama did make some overtures to Republicans.

He combined tough talk about securing the border, which brought Republicans to their feet, with a pledge to entertain reasonable reforms to Medicare, the federal entitlement program fellow Democrats are fighting to protect.

Obama set a tone of seeking bipartisanship at the start of his speech, quoting from former President John F. Kennedy's address to Congress 51 years earlier: "The Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress."

But as in his inaugural address three weeks earlier, Obama gave no ground to the Republican opposition. He believes this is the time for an urgent agenda for progressive change that has the support of the American people. And he warned Congress, in sometimes blunt language, that if lawmakers did not act, he would.

On climate change, he said, "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

At the emotional end of his speech, Obama renewed his call for tougher gun laws -- a politically treacherous issue that Republicans and even some Democrats are shying away from. He did so with passion, demanding again and again that Congress hold a vote.

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