When President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of Congress February 12 in the annual State of the Union Speech, he’ll try to persuade Republicans to stop the “sequester” involving automatic spending cuts that hurt the military and civilian economy. Having barely survived the “fiscal cliff’ talks to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class and get tax hikes on individuals earning over $450,000, Obama now has to persuade a reluctant Congress to give him more time to expand the economy. With his reelection behind him, the president has more leverage but risks becoming a lame-duck should Republicans continue to play obstructionist on his economic agenda. Obama wants to speak “about making sure that we’re focused on job creation here in the United States of America,” telling reporters previewing his speech. With outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warning of draconic cuts to the military, Obama wants the GOP to compromise.
Obama wants Congress to support education, clean energy production and the deficit in ways that won’t adversely affect the middle class and elderly. With the debt ceiling looming, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Vir.) want the “sequester” to go forward untouched. Deficit reduction through mandatory spending cuts is the GOP’s only approach to fixing the economy. Obama would like to emphasize progress on Wall Street, helping to fund more employment with the nation’s largest companies. Pointing to steady economic growth, Barack can point to shrinking federal budget deficits, steadily improved by some 5 million jobs added since April 2010. Barack’s best case to hold off the “sequester” is precisely that federal budget deficits are shrinking on their own without sweeping spending cuts. Congressional Republicans haven’t acknowledged the importance of federal jobs.
During the 2012 campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Ryan talked of creating 10 million new private sector jobs but wouldn’t say how they’d do it. They only hinted at slashing government spending that would toss thousands of federal workers into unemployment. With the Labor Department reporting that unemployment bumped up to 7.9% in January, there’s simply no room for more federal layoffs without damaging the economy. “I am prepared and eager and anxious to do a big deal, a big package that ends this governance by crisis where every two weeks or every two months or ever six months w are threatening this hard-won recovery,” said Obama. Most economists agree that consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. When the government cuts back on spending it hurts the consumer economy. Slashing government spending would toss thousands of federal workers into unemployment.
Obama wants the GOP leadership to suspend the “sequester” in order to keep more military and private sector jobs from going by the wayside. If Obama talks about health care or “climate change,” he should connect the dots with the economy. Any attempt to push for new fuel emissions standards or to push the Congress into signing onto the costly Kyoto Protocol would not have much receptivity on Capitol Hill. To get the GOP to buy in, Obama must couch all his actions in the context of preserving and expanding the jobs market. “We’re not in a position where he can blame anybody else for the economy now,” said former Bush White House strategist Tony Fratto. Pushing for immigration reform also won’t fly unless Barack can show how it helps the U.S. economy. Most savvy elected officials know that current immigration laws help fund government entitlement programs by preventing illegal aliens from collecting government benefits.
On foreign policy, Obama plans to highlight the expected end of the Afghan War, saving taxpayers billions in war-related expenses. House and Senate Republicans have a vested interest in the outcome of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. GOP officials want reassurance that the U.S. will end military involvements where the sacrifices were worth it. Obama should hint in his speech about how many of the 60,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout. “I think it’s important to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” said White House senior strategist David Axelrod, hinting that Obama will address many different topics, including gun control. Obama plans to ask Congress to come up with some common sense gun control legislation, pointing to mass murders in Newtown, Colorado or, more recently, gang violence in Chicago.
Obama has a golden opportunity to keep his State of the Union Speech focused on the bipartisan job of fixing the U.S. economy. If he deviates too far into a political agenda, he’ll hand the GOP’s rebuttal speaker Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) a chance to sell the new GOP’s future plans. Obama should stay focused on real economic progress, including steady employment gains and lower budget deficits. Talking about how next year’s health care roll out will add more jobs and further reduce budget deficits would go a long way in reassuring Congressional Republicans that it’s OK to postpone the “sequester” and let the current economy continue to expand. Focusing too much on immigration reform, global warming, gun control and nuclear arms reduction would hand the GOP more ammunition. Keeping it simple by focusing on jobs and the economy will neutralize any attempts by the GOP to argue they need to go ahead with slashing the federal budget.
About the Author\
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.