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Good Points

6 Worthy Policy Ideas From Obama

Deficit reduction may have been missing, but the president made other bipartisan proposals—merit pay for teachers, expansion of drilling—that are worth considering, says John Avlon.

President Obama’s election year State of the Union address was attacked in pre-buttals from the Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress alike. But there were thoughtful moments and policies with bipartisan potential that deserve attention beyond the predicable partisan spin. Yes, there were plenty of contentious election-year policy contrasts—especially a minimum tax on people making more than $1 million a year. And deficit reduction, unfortunately, was almost entirely absent from the speech.

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill, Jan. 24, 2012 (Saul Loeb, Pool / Getty Images)

But Obama presented six policies that are worth a serious look from both parties, even in an election year. Action on some of them might just help raise Congress’s approval rating from its current low.

1) Merit Pay for Teachers. Education reform is essential to America’s long-term success. And this relatively small common-sense initiative involves serious political risk from the Obama administration, as it provokes opposition from the powerful teachers unions. Paying high-performing teachers better while giving schools the ability to fire bad teachers might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s a controversial innovation on the crucial front of education reform. The Obama administration has backed it before. Republicans should help them enact it in states across the nation.

Missed His Chance

How Obama Blew It

In his State of the Union address, the president had an opportunity to trumpet the vital role of American government in making capitalism work. Peter Beinart on how he came up short.

This was not the speech we’ve been waiting for. From Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck, the conservative assault on Barack Obama comes down to this: unfettered capitalism is true Americanism. Obama’s efforts to use government to make American capitalism more stable just constitute an alien imposition, hatched in foreign lands, and designed to make us less free.

Obama will either effectively answer that charge, or he will lose the 2012 election. And he did not do so Tuesday night. Yes, he talked about government efforts to help improve American manufacturing, American education, American energy policy. But he did not use those proposals to make the essential broader point: that vigorous government does indeed represent true Americanism, because democratic government is the mechanism through which Americans come together to solve problems they cannot solve alone. Obama’s central point should have been that since America’s founding, government has built much of the public infrastructure that makes American capitalism possible. And since the progressive era, it has been government’s efforts to humanize and stabilize capitalism that has ameliorated the savage cycles of boom and bust that have fueled chaos and revolution overseas. It is today’s Republicans, Obama should have said, who have forgotten this core truth about America. Because they forgot it during the Bush years, they helped plunge the U.S. into the worst recession since the 1930s. And because they keep forgetting it, a Republican-controlled Washington would doom America’s chances for a true economic recovery.

Instead of embracing the ideological divide at the heart of this campaign, Obama tried to bridge it. At the beginning of his speech, and again at the end, his central metaphor was the American military: an institution where people put aside their differences to serve the country. But unlike the military, the political arena is not supposed to be a place where people check their ideological convictions at the door and submit to the will of a higher authority. To the contrary, American politics—and especially presidential politics—is a clash of visions, a struggle to define America’s mission and America’s character. And at this moment in time, the essence of that struggle is the debate over whether activist government can make Americans more safe, more prosperous, and more free.

In many ways, Barack Obama is a far more formidable figure than the Republicans vying to run against him. But he needs to enter—and win—that debate, and he missed an opportunity to do so Tuesday night.

Something Missing

Strong on Substance, Weak on Poetry

The speech took a strong stand on taxes and the banks, but likening the nation to a commando unit felt forced and out of place, says Michael Tomasky.

Grade: B. It was ... a good speech. The big newsmaker is the new definition of the “Buffett Rule,” that people who make $1 million or more a year should pay at least 30 percent in taxes. And it’s fairly clear who this was aimed at: “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich.  It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference” (hint: it's somebody who released two years’ worth of tax returns yesterday and paid around 14 percent). Obama was tough on the banks, a little tougher than I’d expected. And I was surprised to hear him mention some “process issues” and call for votes on presidential nominees in 90 days. But just mentioning that in passing isn’t enough; he needed to explain to people what Republicans were doing if he wanted that part of the speech to lead to action and follow-up, and he didn't do that.

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President Barack Obama reaches out to shake hands after giving his State of the Union address. (Susan Walsh / AP Photo)

As for the closing peroration, what should we make, really, of comparing a nation trying to crawl out of a terrible recession to an elite commando unit? That felt awfully forced to me. Yes, it signals that Obama is not going to be shy during the campaign about exploiting the killing of bin Laden, and he shouldn’t be shy about it. But we are not a nation of Navy SEALs, and there is far more ideological space between Americans than there is between him and Bill Gates. It was just a stretch. Everybody on TV seemed to like it, but I found it ... not exactly inappropriate, but inapt. SEALs follow orders. Citizens don’t, and they can’t be compelled to in a democracy. But if it gives him some purchase on the patriotism question, what with all the nutty things that are still said about him, I suppose that’s all right.

Looking Inward

Obama Focuses on the Home Front

In his State of the Union address, the president makes clear that nation building overseas no longer is a U.S. priority, suggests American power will not be a decisive factor in events like the Arab Spring, and remains deliberately vague on Iran.

Historians will likely study the Arab Spring for decades, but President Obama began framing the upheaval in the Middle East in his State of the Union tonight. He said, “As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo, from Sana to Tripoli.”

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

That phrase implies that the American exit from Iraq, a war that President Bush had hoped would birth the modern Arab world’s first democracy, has given way to a new era marked by the fall of dictators.

Republicans will likely point out that until this fall, the United States had been negotiating for a small U.S. military presence to remain in Iraq. But the broader point is clear. In a speech in which Obama got applause for promising to do more “nation building at home,” nation building abroad is no longer a U.S. priority.

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How'd He Do?

In his State of the Union address, Obama pitched tax reform, defended American exceptionalism—and made his case for a second term. Howard Kurtz, Eli Lake, and more on whether the president’s rhetoric was enough.

How Obama Blew It
by Peter Beinart

This was not the speech we’ve been waiting for. From Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Glenn Beck, the conservative assault on Barack Obama comes down to this: Unfettered capitalism is true Americanism. Obama’s efforts to use government to make American capitalism more stable and more just constitute an alien imposition, hatched in foreign lands, and designed to make us less free.

Obama will either effectively answer that charge, or he will lose reelection. And he did not do so Tuesday night. Yes, he talked about government efforts to help improve American manufacturing, American education, American energy policy. But he did not use those proposals to make the essential broader point: that vigorous government does indeed represent true Americanism, because democratic government is the mechanism through which Americans come together to solve problems they cannot solve alone.

The president ticked off major accomplishments—ending the Iraq War, killing Osama bin Laden—and called for tougher penalties on securities fraud in his third State of the Union address to the nation. WATCH VIDEO.

Big Hug for Gabby

Bring it in for the real thing! Obama started the evening off on a warm, personal note by giving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords a long bear hug as he greeted those in attendance.

Obama Got Osama

Obama started out his third State of the Union address by trumpeting two of his biggest achievements as president: the end of the Iraq War and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Also, other al Qaeda operatives have been captured, the Taliban has been weakened, and some troops have come home from Afghanistan. In short, I ended a war and I killed the world’s biggest terrorist, so who are you calling a wimp? The president concluded his opening remarks with a unifying salute to the troops. “Imagine what we could accomplish if we follow their example,” he said.

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Obama’s Lofty Laundry List

The State of the Union was a well-delivered pastiche of soaring words, vague goals, and modest initiatives. Howard Kurtz on why the president’s rhetoric is no longer enough.

President Obama, all but shoved offstage during the Republican primary craziness, had a rare opportunity to grab the spotlight Tuesday night and attempt to answer a question at the heart of his reelection effort:

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Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner applaud Barack Obama as the president gives his State of the Union address. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo)

Just what does he want to do with another four years?

An election-year State of the Union is a tricky assignment, given that a divided Congress is unlikely to accomplish squat and the incumbent is already under daily assault by those who want his job. So as the halftime act between a pair of Newt-and-Mitt debates, Obama’s challenge was to sketch his vision of the future and rekindle some of the excitement he generated in 2008.

Obama: No More Special Tax Cuts!

Look out Mitt Romney, those tax woes aren't going away any time soon. At the State of the Union Address Tuesday, the president vowed to reform taxes based on the Buffett rule—as Warren Buffett's secretary looked on from the audience.

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Video: 6 Best Speech Moments

The president touted his accomplishments and called out Wall Street. WATCH VIDEO.

Mitch Daniels's SOTU Response

What's the saddest thing about the Obama presidency? In the official GOP response, the Indiana governor said nothing has been 'sadder' than the administration's efforts to divide Americans.