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State of the Union: Did Obama Win His Future?

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STATE OF THE UNION 2011

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama certainly reached out to the Republicans, praised American innovation and know-how, and for the most part avoided lightning rod issues on either side. It was a huge leap forward for a president who was close to life support just a few months ago. If his goal was to avoid getting into deeper trouble and getting as much bipartisan applause as possible, he certainly achieved those goals. And Supreme Court bashing was out, even though the ruling he complained about last year still stands.

The centerpiece was his praise of America and its ability to be competitive.

But, if President Obama hopes to "win the future" in 2012, his speech came up short Tuesday night. It was certainly a big and earnest move to the center, but it lacked the kind of specifics and innovative policies that the president needs to make America competitive in the 21st Century.

If you were unemployed, you were all but ignored at a time of great unemployment. And when it came to the specifics almost all of them were still being developed. In this speech, Obama proposed extending many Clinton ideas like the $10,000 college tax deduction but had few original ones of his own ready to go.

The lack of specifics is probably the result of the fast-paced reshuffle of the White House and no doubt many of the topics were probably chosen in the last few days, explaining why few were previewed for the public in a run up to the speech.

Let's review what he said and he didn't say.

He certainly said that innovation was the backbone of America, labeling this a Sputnik moment, referring to an event experienced and often spoken about by Hillary Clinton -- the moment Eisenhower rallied the country for science education, interstate highway system and other goals when we were beaten into space by the Soviets.

But while using that as an image, he carefully avoided any mention of the space program itself and instead called for "Apollo-like" programs in other areas. He has in fact gutted the manned space program. He also avoided mentioning the research and development tax credit or other programs popular with innovation-based companies, focusing instead on clean electricity, advanced railways and 98 percent broadband coverage (one wonders where the 2 percent left behind are).

He ducked mentioning the 9.4 percent unemployment statistics, failing in any way to connect to those millions of Americans facing unemployment. He never clearly spoke to them, especially those in the Midwest where he is in the greatest political trouble. There was no analysis of the unemployment problem and how he would fight it. Nothing on job training, pension reform, or economic security. No minimum wage or unemployment insurance discussion. He did not pledge to put America back to work or offer new policies to get there. He did back just about every trade agreement, including those for Colombia and South Korea.

When it came to education, his most memorable material seemed to center on an implied endorsement of the Tiger Mom philosophy, with science fair winners put on equal footing with Super Bowl winners, and renewed demand for discipline among our students. You will find similar language in President Clinton's 1996 SOTU where he called for parents to take greater responsibility and then called for the v-chip. Here President Obama offered few specifics except the extension of the $10,000 college education tax deduction, first developed in the Clinton administration and unveiled in the 1996 SOTU.

His government reform idea was perhaps most unexpected and relatively new to him, but of course a Clinton/Gore staple. Here he was both broad and ambitious, and had some funny lines on salmon regulation -- perhaps helping to frame my basic question about this speech as "Where's the Salmon?"

His full-throated call for malpractice reform was new, as was his willingness to accept some health care fixes that don't violate his fundamental principles. Obama was relatively strong on endorsing immigration reform, in threatening to veto legislation with earmarks, and in proposing a 5-year freeze on discretionary spending.

The president basically walked away from his deficit commission, and was vague in his call for entitlement reform. His bones to the left included reiterating he opposed permanent extension of the top income Bush tax cuts and taking a victory lap on gays in the military. His mentions of the problems with Iran and North Korea were brief and low-key.

Corporate tax reform and lower corporate tax rates are certainly important to business but not something typically for the broad audience of a State of the Union. Americans care about their own tax rates, not those of companies.

He avoided crime and he obviously made a decision not to take on the gun lobby in any way, even if banning clips like those used in the Tucson shooting had popular support in recent polls.

The president also avoided the looming municipal financing crisis. This was a chance to get out ahead of problems before they require emergency legislation and he decided not to bring that up.

This speech will poll well -- it has a lot of popular material and was very optimistic about America. But the failure to tackle the big problems and issues with specific creative ideas means the president and the White House have a lot of work to do. While these speeches are usually an end point to a furious policy making and agenda-setting effort inside the White House, this speech really marks a new beginning for Obama and his turn to the center. But making that turn real will require backing the rhetoric up with the changes and ideas that really put America back to work, bring our families together and keep us as the most innovative country on earth. He has had a great two months and now the chance to turn it into a great two years.

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