President Obama rehashed many familiar themes this evening, calling on Congress to act on a host of issues -- and vowing to take unilateral executive action if they fail to sufficiently address his priorities. A few passages were newsworthy: Obama denounced the looming sequester cuts, voiced support for "modest" Medicare reforms, called for another stimulus, resurrected cap and trade, pushed comprehensive immigration reform, backed a national hike in the minimum wage, announced another major troop draw-down in Afghanistan, and insisted that Congress allow up-or-down votes on a series of gun control measures. As is his habit, the president was not especially conciliatory in his remarks. Here are ten quotes from the text of the address that merit further scrutiny:
(1) The sequester:
We are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances. Now we need to finish the job. And the question is: How? In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn't agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars' worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness, they'd devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. And that's why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts -- known here in Washington as "the sequester'' -- are a really bad idea.
Though he tries to drop the sequester into Congress' lap, it is simply a fact that this package of automatic spending cuts was conceptualized and proposed by the White House. President Obama signed it into law as part of 2011's debt deal -- and yet the spending reductions are still lingering, unrealized. The president has been all over the map on this issue, threatening to veto any attempt to replace the cuts, then averring that the cuts "will not happen." Obama now insists that some of the already agreed-to cuts be replaced with additional tax increases, which is unacceptable. He has not offered his own specific plan about how to undo the sequester.
(2) "Not one dime" to deficits:
Tonight I'll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. Let me repeat: Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.
This turn of phrase is a major red flag. After all, this president pledged to halve the deficit by the end of his first term and failed spectacularly. He also employed nearly this precise formulation while pitching Obamacare, all the way down to the "dime" verbiage. With that program's cost estimate continually rising, and with some of the phony pay-for gimmicks being stripped away, the massive program will fuel deficits and debt for years to come. The president has no credibility on this issue, which the American people understand. Also note the weasel-word, "should," in the excerpt above. Ahem:
RT @stevebruskcnn: [CNN's] Jessica Yellin reports administration officials refused to put a price tag on the president’s new proposals tonight.— Peter Suderman (@petersuderman) February 13, 2013
(3) Medicare reform and health care costs:
And that's the approach I offer tonight. On Medicare, I'm prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. (APPLAUSE) Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs. (APPLAUSE) And -- and the reforms I'm proposing go even further. We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors.
To his marginal credit, the president signaled a willingness to make "modest" reforms to Medicare, which is the top driver of our long term debt. He mentioned means testing as one option, but didn't elaborate any further. Unfortunately, Medicare needs systemic reform and already incorporates a fair amount of means testing, so we'll need many more details on the president's plan to evaluate it. Don't hold your breath. His assertion that Obamacare is "helping to slow the growth of healthcare costs" is patently false, on both the family and federal level. (Remember, Obama promised to bend the cost curve down on federal spending and lower premiums by $2500 per family. The opposite has happened. The CBO's recent report anticipates national healthcare spending to explode by 94 percent over the next decade).
(4) The return of the carbon tax:
I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.
This is an echo of 2009's cap and trade misadventure, the liberal dream that couldn't even pass Congress when Democrats controlled both houses. Steven Hayward has done excellent work on this issue, explicating why even if the United States adopted these crippling "green" standards and taxes, it wouldn't do a thing to help the planet. Ludicrously unrealistic goals, oppressive new energy taxes on all households, chasing jobs off our shores...all for an undetectable environmental benefit. This is a lose-lose. Obama recognizes that there's no chance this sort of legislation will pass even the Democrat-held Senate, so he's setting the table to (once again) bypass the people's branch through executive orders and regulations.
(5) Stimulus 3.0:
Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire, a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self- healing power grids...Tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First'' program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.
Are CEO's worried about investing and building businesses in America because of our roads and bridges, or because of our byzantine tax code, our crushing debt problem, and anti-corporate scapegoating from people like Barack Obama? Also, shouldn't the first tranche of "stimulus" money have been applied to fix our "most urgent repairs"? Was that $825 billion in borrowed money insufficient to get the job done? Oh well, stay tuned for more lectures about "crumbling roads and bridges" as if the original "fix-it-first" boondoggle never happened.
(6) "What works" in education:
So let's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance.
One educational program that worked was the DC opportunity scholarship program, which helped inner city students escape their chronically failing public schools. The initiative was an empirical success with a fabulous return on investment and sky-high parental satisfaction. Under pressure from teachers unions, President Obama killed the program, one of the few true cuts he's been eager to execute. So much for "what works." This president isn't a pragmatist; he just plays one on television.
(7) Rhetorical restraint on immigration reform:
Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration's already made, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years. Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally. (APPLAUSE) And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy. (APPLAUSE) In other words, we know what needs to be done. And as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts.
The president could have blown up bipartisan immigration talks by sharply demagoguing Republicans on this issue. He chose not to. He laid out some broad principles, applauded Congressional leaders for their progress so far, and moved on. His unusually light touch indicates that he's serious about accomplishing something here, and he didn't want to scare off the GOP -- even though he surely was tempted to drive a wedge through the Republican ranks by highlighting internal divisions. Is there a true bipartisan consensus forming around broad reforms, not just in Washington, but among the populace?
(8) Raising the minimum wage:
Since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. Tonight, let's declare that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty -- and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
This proposal sounds compassionate and pro-worker, but hikes in the minimum wage -- government price controls -- kill jobs. It's economics 101, as explained by the inimitable Milton Friedman:
If Obama were to get his way on this dramatic increase, the federal minimum wage would be higher than in any state, save Washington.
(9) "Whatever we must"?
As long as I'm commander-in-chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military the world has ever known.
It is simply astounding to hear this president boast about his commitment to "do whatever we must" to protect and defend "those who serve their country abroad." Just six months ago, our diplomats in Benghazi were attacked and murdered by terrorists on 9/11. The battle at two US compounds lasted nearly eight hours, during which time no resources were deployed to rescue our besieged personnel. The attack came on the heels of multiple requests for increased security in Libya (and Benghazi specifically), which were inexplicably denied. We still do not know why they were rebuffed, nor do we know what the president was doing during the prolonged battle. We do know that he wasn't actively engaged in his Commander-in-chief duties while these Americans' lives were in grave danger, and they died. Given the slaughter at the consulate and the administration's subsequent stonewalling, this passage in the speech was actually insulting.
(10) Pressing votes on gun control measures:
One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house. Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE) They deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE) They deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE) Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. (APPLAUSE) The families of Newtown deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE) The families of Aurora deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE) The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote. (APPLAUSE) They deserve -- they deserve a simple vote.
The story about young Hadiya is heart-wrenching, as are memories of the horrific Newtown massacre. As I've written before, any legislative action on guns ought to pass two parallel tests: Will it be effective, and does it mass constitutional muster? On the former question, Hadiya was murdered in a city with exceptionally strict gun laws; Connecticut had an 'assault weapons' ban on the books. The latter barely got a mention. By pushing a series of votes on controversial new gun laws, Obama is going out on a limb -- not just for himself (he's underwater on public opinion on the general subject), but for red state Democrats who are up for re-election in 2014. There are at least half a dozen Democratic Senators who want absolutely no part of numerous gun votes.
For what it's worth, my favorite moments of tonight's generally lackluster address were the president's strong remarks about fatherhood, families and responsibility, and his recognition of several inspiring and heroic Americans -- including a 102-year-old woman who waited in line for hours to cast her vote in November -- at the tail end of the speech.