Obama’s SOTU Ranged Far and Wide, but Did It Get Him Anywhere?

Published January 30, 2014

“A tiresome exercise in political exhibitionism” is how nationally syndicated columnist George Will recently described the State of the Union speech – all State of the Union speeches of modern times, not just the one President Barack Obama delivered this week.

Based on the reactions of many analysts to Obama’s latest SOTU speech, there’s much agreement with Will’s assessment. Obama laid out a litany of ideas that touched on topics ranging from minimum wage and income inequality to immigration reform and early childhood education, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and negotiations with Iranian government leaders to higher pay for women.

But he utterly ignored the elephant in the room: the disastrous introduction of his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, in which millions of persons have lost or will lose their health insurance and in many instances will pay higher premiums for less coverage to replace it. Instead, Obama chided members of Congress for repeatedly trying to roll back or repeal the measure, which he sold to the American people with the promise that if we like our insurance and our doctors, we could keep them under Obamacare — “period.”

Higher Minimum

Much of what Obama said we’ve heard before, noted Pamela Villarreal, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She said much of the speech was recycled from last year but noted in comments she posted at the NCPA’s blog some things that stood out to her, one of them being Obama’s call for a federal minimum wage of $10.10 per hour. Obama began hyping a higher minimum wage weeks before the speech.

“Say yes. Give America a raise. (Cheers, applause.) Give ’em a raise,” Obama exhorted members of Congress, to which Villarreal responded: “If America wants a raise, then America should sharpen its skills. Isn’t that what all of the federal money poured into college is for? How about minimum skill levels as opposed to minimum wages?”

Heartland Institute President Joe Bast also jumped on Obama’s demand for a higher minimum wage, calling it “the incredibly insulting and condescending notion that Congress should ‘give America a raise’ by raising the minimum wage. Do we all work for government? Would we not make more than $10 an hour unless government told our employers to pay us at least this much? That line – ‘give America a raise’ – should appear in dictionaries as part of the definition of ‘pandering.'”

Others, though, liked what they heard.

“The president’s call for Congress to pass the Harkin-Miller minimum wage bill was absolutely right, as is his executive order requiring federal contractors to pay $10.10,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Providing income to working families through a robust social insurance system, and work supports such as an improved EITC [earned income tax credit], are also pillars of economic growth and living standards.”

Job Training

Obama announced he was putting Vice President Joe Biden in charge of “an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs” to boost workers’ skills. But Villarreal noted decades of previous government workplace training programs have done little to boost skill levels.

Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, said in a statement: “It is encouraging that the president identified getting swift passage of both new long-term surface transportation and Water Resources Development bills as among his top priorities for the year.  We expect Congress will heed his call for action on these two critical pieces of legislation and will work aggressively to help ensure their swift passage.”

He also liked the president’s call for job training reform: “With private sector demand rebounding and the industry’s graying workforce retiring rapidly, many of our members are concerned about where they will find qualified new workers in the near future. In addition, students should be encouraged to investigate rewarding career opportunities that do not require college degrees.”

More Spending

But virtually every proposal Obama made would cost money.

“Reckless overspending in Washington is creating an unsustainable mountain of debt that will be passed on to our children’s children. Yet throughout his speech, Obama outlined additional spending initiatives with no consideration of how they will be paid for,” said attorney and investment banker Jonathan Steitz in a statement.

“President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night was all about micro-management,” said economics professor Richard Ebeling of Northwood University. “It was micro-management at one level since he realizes that a divided Congress will not pass any ‘grand’ legislation that he might try to submit. Thus, he proposed a series of small changes that he hopes that either Congress would go along with, or that he can try to impose through ‘executive order’ without Congressional approval.”