The State of the Union
This nation faces huge problems — putting millions of Americans back to work, investing to compete in a 21st-century global economy and wrestling down a long-term budget deficit that threatens everyone’s future.Ever since the 2010 campaign, we have heard precious little in the way of serious solutions — mostly just smoke-and-mirrors spending cuts from Republicans and their usual clamor for more tax cuts for the wealthy.Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was President Obama’s chance to rise above that pinched vision, to help Americans understand that while government cannot do everything, it is indispensable in reviving the economy, spurring innovation, educating Americans and keeping them healthy and making the nation competitive globally.Mr. Obama took on those issues, and the Republicans, squarely. Rebutting their single-minded focus on slashing discretionary domestic spending, Mr. Obama said we have to “stop pretending” that cutting this kind of spending “alone will be enough.”The speech was a chance for Mr. Obama to talk about the need for government investment in highways and railroads, schools and new, clean-energy industries. And we were encouraged that Mr. Obama set national goals in these areas — 85 percent of the nation’s energy should come from clean energy by 2035; 80 percent of Americans should have access to high-speed rail within 25 years; and 98 percent should have access to high-speed wireless within five years.These are grand, and expensive, ideas, and it was vital that Mr. Obama talked about the need to pay for new spending.He proposed eliminating taxpayer subsidies for oil companies, for example, to help pay for his clean-energy initiative. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” the president said, “but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”Mr. Obama also is calling for extending his proposed three-year freeze on some discretionary programs to five years. The White House said that would create $400 billion in savings over 10 years — a deep cut at a bad time, but far saner than Republican calls to slash spending so deeply that it would surely cripple the recovery.The White House said Mr. Obama needed to make some proposal like that to remain in the debate. That is likely true. But he also made clear that there is no long-term solution without cutting military spending and mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security.He made a strong case for ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy when they expire in two years. “Before we take money away from our schools or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break,” he said.That’s important, but letting high-end tax breaks expire won’t raise enough revenue to pay for needed investments or reduce long-term deficits. Mr. Obama proposed to simplify both the corporate income tax and the personal income tax, but he did not call for raising other taxes. Americans may not want to hear that taxes have to go up, but until Mr. Obama and other political leaders are willing to say so, credible deficit reduction will remain out of reach.Mr. Obama’s speech offered a welcome contrast to all of the posturing that passes for business in the new Republican-controlled House. On Tuesday, House Republicans pushed through a resolution calling for reducing spending on domestic programs to 2008 levels. In a fragile economy, cutting spending on transportation, education, scientific research, food safety and childhood nutrition will do huge damage.At times Tuesday night, Mr. Obama was genuinely inspiring with a vision for the country to move forward with confidence and sense of responsibility. Americans need to hear a lot more like that from him.