President Obama delivers his 2011 State of the Union address. (Evan Vucci / Associated…)
President Obama is scheduled to give his third annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, laying out his agenda for the federal government in 2012. It's safe to assume, though, that he'll find little or no support for his initiatives from Republicans in Congress. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) signaled Sunday that another year of partisan sniping and dysfunction had already started when he said it would be "pathetic" if Obama stuck with the policies he'd advocated in the past. Given the slim chances of the two parties agreeing on any significant legislation before the November election, Obama should devote his energies to achieving the next best thing: enacting a few meaningful but less polarizing measures that could help the anemic economy.
The president gave a brief preview of his speech in an online video released Saturday, and it struck the same themes of "fairness" and "rebuilding" he has been talking about for the last six months. When Obama calls for a country where "everybody does their fair share, everybody plays by the same set of rules," he usually means shifting more of the tax burden onto high-income Americans. Republicans call that class warfare, so it's hard to imagine any such proposal passing this year, even in the context of a reform that simplified the tax code, broadened the base and reduced rates. As much as we'd like to see that kind of overhaul, at this point we'd settle for Congress quickly agreeing to extend the temporary reduction in payroll tax rates through the rest of the year — a proposal that seems to be supported by most lawmakers from both parties but has been blocked by Republicans aligned with the tea party.
In his preview, the president also called for boosting manufacturing, education and training, all of which are worthy goals. But if Obama hopes to achieve them by spending more federal dollars, that's a dead letter in this Congress. A more achievable goal would be to put the dollars Washington is already collecting from gas taxes to better use by doing more to promote public-private partnerships on highway and mass-transit projects. Obama has proposed to do so by creating an "infrastructure bank" that would use federal dollars as seed money for projects largely financed by investors. That's not deficit spending, it's smarter spending.
State of the Union talking points, in photos
Finally, the deal Obama struck with Congress last year to raise the federal debt limit calls for Washington to cut $1.2 trillion from projected deficits over the coming decade, including $85 billion in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. A more ambitious plan for closing the budget gap is needed, but it will be hard enough to hit the targets for fiscal 2013. Obama, who's let the GOP take the lead on deficit reduction, should assert himself now by proposing a credible set of cuts. The goal should be to avoid yet more of the brinkmanship that has exhausted the public's confidence in Washington — even if that's the only path this Congress ever takes.