[Program Note: "State Of The Union Week" continues today, with a look at a handful of new ideas from President Obama's speech last night. I wrote an insta-reaction to the speech yesterday, and I will be examining the specific language of the speech this Friday, but today I wanted to highlight a few things that many in the media world seem to have missed from last night's speech. President Obama proposed a number of ideas last night, amongst the continuation of themes or policies he has pushed previously. The following are the proposals that stuck out (to me) as being truly new ideas for him, and thus worth examining.]
The day after President Obama's big yearly speech to Congress and the American people, most pundits and talking-head types in the media are vying to outdo each other on stating "what it all means" or similar high-flown overanalysis. What many of them seem to have missed, however, is the fact that Obama used his speech to introduce a few topics into the political debate. Some of these topics have been around for a while, championed by various people and groups, but what seems newsworthy to me is the fact that Obama included them in his list of proposals for the future.
We'll take these one-by-one, by excerpting his speech and then following it with a brief commentary. First up was the subject of energy:
We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if -- I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.
Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, eighty percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.
This, as far as I am aware, is the first time any president has suggested ending the massive (and expensive) corporate welfare the government hands over to the oil companies each and every year. Republicans, being against welfare, should just get right on board this bandwagon, right?
Well, probably not. In fact, it was a bold idea to propose when gas prices are creeping back upwards, because the counterargument to anything relating to energy is always: "Energy prices will go up if we change anything!" Look for this to be deployed immediately by Republicans.
The 80 percent figure is a nice goal to shoot for, but is likely not going to become a political deadline on the order of: "We'll put a man on the moon in this decade." Mostly because it is so far in the future it is almost irrelevant. In 24 years, is anyone going to remember last night's speech? I mean, goals are nice and everything, but making them a little more immediate and a little more realistic would probably be a lot more helpful.
In any case, Obama should get credit for at least tackling the subject -- especially on the oil companies' corporate welfare -- when nobody else even seems to want to talk about it. It may not happen this year, it may not happen next year; but at least Obama's starting a conversation that we really should be having.
Next, an excellent idea on immigration, which I've never heard a prominent politician ever even suggest:
One last point about education. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.
Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult. I know it will take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.
Now, I'm not talking about Obama referencing the DREAM Act -- his one major failure with the lame duck Congress last month. The DREAM Act is a good idea, but it doesn't qualify as a new idea (at least for this column's purposes). Instead, I'm referring to Obama's call to revamp the way visas are handled for higher-education students -- which currently makes no sense whatsoever (as the president pointed out).
Here's what happens today: A foreign student gets accepted to an American university. They come over here, get a degree or two, and then decide to leave college and enter the workforce. But their student visa is now up, so they have to go back to their country of origin. The only way they can stay here and work in a highly-skilled profession is to get a different sort of visa. This visa allows them to stay here, but is tied to the company they work for. If they ever want to change jobs (work for the company across the street), they have to start the visa process all over again.
This does two things. It discourages young adults with doctorates and other graduate degrees from working in America, instead sending them back to their countries to (as Obama put it) "compete against us." And even if they do manage to find a company willing to spend thousands of dollars getting them a visa, they often wind up trapped working for one company at what is often lower pay than an American worker would get for the same job. This depresses wages for the whole industry (the companies who benefit from this scheme love it, it should come as no surprise).
These are not, I should mention, people picking crops or cleaning bathrooms. These are computer engineers, doctors, research scientists, and other very highly-qualified people -- the cream of the crop in terms of immigration as a whole.
If there was a class of visa available (with a path to citizenship, I would argue) for someone who has just gotten a Ph.D in electrical engineering or some other worthy field, which allowed them to bargain for their wages like every other American worker (without having this visa tied to their employer), America and American companies would benefit from their talents. But Obama's right -- just sending them home after college makes no sense at all. And I've never heard any other politician even raise the issue.
The next idea came as somewhat of a challenge to Republicans:
For example, over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all. But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and it has to change.
So tonight, I'm asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years -- without adding to our deficit. It can be done.
Republicans have been making a lot of noise over the fact that "American corporate taxes are the highest in the world!" -- without ever admitting that plenty of immense multinational corporations pay exactly zero taxes, because they can write off pretty much anything under the sun against their earnings (which they cannot do in other countries). Obama is saying to them: "You want to lower corporate tax rates? Fine. But we can't add one penny to the deficit by doing so, meaning you've got to close enough corporate tax loopholes to lower the overall rate without impacting the budget at all."
This is a much steeper hill to climb than just lowering the overall corporate rate and leaving the loopholes wide open. If Obama can continue to make this case, it will cause massive consternation among Republicans because it eloquently points out that you can't cut taxes and the deficit at the same time -- you've got to balance things, or else the deficit rises. This is good philosophical ground for Obama to be on, and it defuses the debate before it even begins.
The next bit was indeed interesting, even if nobody seems to know exactly what Obama's talking about:
We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are twelve different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.
Now, we've made great strides over the last two years in using technology and getting rid of waste. Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with a click of the mouse. We're selling acres of federal office space that hasn't been used in years, and we'll cut through red tape to get rid of more. But we need to think bigger. In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote -- and we will push to get it passed.
This massive duplication of effort is an entrenched problem in the federal government. Examples of it abound. If you buy a frozen cheese pizza in a store, it is regulated by a different federal department than if you buy a pepperoni pizza. Which makes no sense whatsoever.
But the federal bureaucracy doesn't exactly change easily. The status quo is going to have plenty of supporters, no matter what government agency you're talking about. Consolidating departments who do similar regulatory things is one of those great ideas every politician has every so often, but actually doing it is extremely tough (if not downright impossible). And Obama hasn't yet told anyone any details. So it'll be interesting to see what he decides to tackle on this front. My guess is that whatever he comes up with is going to pleasantly surprise some people on both sides of the political divide, because there are so many examples of "but we've always done it that way" thinking in the federal government that it is what the military would call a "target-rich environment."
Obama's next new idea wasn't exactly his, but it's the first time he's stated it:
And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it. I will veto it.
This was John McCain's campaign pledge in 2008. In 2009, the media went through a bout of mass stupidity (or perhaps mass forgetfulness) and declared that Obama was the one who made this promise (with zero actual proof of this "fact," it should be noted). Some of us, at the time, pointed this out, but the mainstream media was having such fun that it ignored the reality of the situation.
Obama finally gave in last night, and made the pledge everyone was so sure he had already made in the past. The irony of the situation is clear to anyone who really understands the mechanics of the federal budget -- Congress authorizes money, and earmarks were their way of tying the president's hands on how to spend it. By forgoing earmarks, the money still gets spent (for the most part), but it gets spent entirely at the White House's discretion. In other words, Obama is saying: "I will veto any attempts by Congress to limit my power to spend allocated money." The joke, in other words, is really on Congress.
And the last new proposal Obama came up with was a truly brilliant one, for a few reasons:
Our troops come from every corner of this country -- they're black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and R.O.T.C. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.
This is brilliant on a number of levels. First, Obama is actually calling for action from universities, not Congress. Second, it was the best juxtaposition of partisan issues of the entire night. I guess it was fitting for "Date Night" in Congress (as the media dubbed the seating arrangements). Because Obama sent "don't ask, don't tell" repeal out on a rhetorical date with letting R.O.T.C. back on all American campuses. In one paragraph, Obama praised the fact that gay soldiers will soon be able to serve openly, and then pivoted to point out that -- now that he had accomplished this feat -- it made no sense for colleges to continue their ban on both R.O.T.C. and military recruiters on campus.
Letting gays serve openly was a big issue for the left, and hated by the right. Campuses which kicked the military out (for not being equal-opportunity employers, and for allowing such blatant discrimination) absolutely enraged the Right, and was cheered on (and engineered by, to a certain extent) by the left. And Obama just sent the two issues out on a blind date. By doing so, he celebrated a victory by the Left with an admonition to them, and by doing so pleased the right enormously.
What Obama was essentially saying was this: "We won the fight to allow gays to serve in the military. Because this fight is over, we need to shake hands and move forward now. And that includes allowing the military back on our campuses. The rationale for excluding them is now gone, and so there is no reason not to let them back on campus -- deal with it."
As I said, to me this was the most brilliant juxtaposition of two very polarizing issues I heard all night. It started with cheerleading for a Democratic legislative victory (disguised as cheerleading for our troops), and ended with an admonishment Republicans must have loved.
I have no overall conclusions today. I didn't agree with all of Obama's new ideas. I don't for a minute think they're all going to become reality any time soon. But I did think it was worth a sober analysis of what was indeed new from Obama's speech, mostly because so many others seem to be ignoring the details of what he actually said.
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