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.
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.
2) Expand Oil and Gas Drilling. Cynics were ready for the president to call for investment in “green jobs”; for many it’s become a partisan punch line. But they might not have expected the president to announce that he was opening up 75 percent of offshore oil and gas locations up for exploration and drilling. In addition, Obama announced that he would use federal lands for clean energy production, which he said would illuminate 3 million homes. It’s a step toward more energy independence, something even Newt Gingrich might have to reluctantly applaud.
3) No More Bailouts. Bailout backlash has been a powerful political force in the past few years, infusing both the Tea Party and Occupy movements. One of the chief criticisms of Dodd-Frank is that “too big to fail” has not been ended. But the Obama administration announced that banks would be required to put in place the equivalent of a living will that spells out how they will pay their debts if they go under because of over-leveraging. It is an overdue step in the right direction, even as more details are needed to give it real muscle.
4) 90-Day Up or Down Vote. The dysfunction of our divided government is rooted in hyperpartisan parliamentary maneuvers. Republican and Democratic presidents have found worthy appointees stalled as a result of secret holds and never receiving a vote, often because of unrelated protests or power plays. Obama was right to call for a 90-day up-or-down vote for appointees, no matter who is president next year at this time.
5) Immigration Reform. President Obama pointed out that his administration has increased border enforcement and deportations. That’s why he could argue that it was time for comprehensive immigration reform, particularly on enacting the DREAM act and giving green cards to graduates so that they don’t take their American-made education overseas to create jobs and inventions elsewhere. Remember, comprehensive immigration reform was a plan once backed by President Bush and John McCain.
6) Ban Insider Trading by Members of Congress. This should be a no-brainer. As illustrated by the book Throw Them All Out, by the Hoover Institution’s Peter Schweizer, members of Congress play by different rules than you or I or Martha Stewart. What George Washington Plunkett called “honest graft” is alive and well—members of both parties trading stocks based on inside information. The president committed to signing this piece of legislation. The question is why it hasn’t reached his desk yet. It’s another overdue front on congressional reform.
State of the Union addresses are primarily policy speeches that attempt to set an executive direction for the nation. But three moments pierced the partisan Kabuki that has too often preoccupied our politics.
The sight of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the House floor, remarkably on the road to recovery one year after her attempted assassination, was emotional and inspiring. When she and Obama hugged, it was playful and with genuine affection. What was perhaps less expected but even more inspiring was the sight of her fellow Arizona representative, Jeff Flake—a libertarian conservative—standing beside her, as one of nearly 200 members of Congress who agreed to sit across party lines. What was so striking was the tenderness with which he helped her rise and stand. It was the simple human gesture that we forget connects us when hyperpartisanship causes us to demonize the people we disagree with.
Why does John Boehner hate the flag? I’m joking, of course. But I couldn’t help but notice that 10 years after 9/11, he was the one person on the podium who wasn’t wearing an American flag lapel pin. Obama and Vice President Biden had theirs in place. As a 9/11 witness, I love and appreciate the impulse behind the American-flag lapel pin, especially in the wake of the attacks. Symbolism matters. But it is not always determinative of character. Conservatives who hotly criticized then-candidate Obama for not always wearing an American flag lapel pin presumably won’t accuse Speaker Boehner of harboring dark, Manchurian candidate–esque thoughts. So let’s just use this presumably misplaced flag pin as a reminder to cut the knee-jerk accusations and absurdities going forward.
The speech was framed with a tribute to the sense of mission embodied by our military men and women. “They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences,” said the commander in chief. “They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.” That is true—and especially necessary to remember right now in American history.