Make No Little Plans

I recently got an email invitation from a Democratic congressional office to come to a "watch party" to view President Obama's State of the Union address. His "fourth-quarter priorities," according to the White House-inspired talking points of the message, are "home ownership, free community college, and high-paying jobs." That sounds pretty good. But if you unpack the specifics, the president is offering pretty weak tea. Obama proposes to have the federal government cover 75 percent of the cost, if states will participate. This could save students an average of over $3,000 a year. By contrast, the original G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944 covered living expenses as well as tuition. The point is that this Obama proposal is not going to be passed by the Republican Congress in any case, so why not think big and act bold? Why not propose something that would make a major difference in the lives of millions of moderate income Americans and dare the Republicans to oppose it?
01/11/2015 10:29 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2015

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized." -- Daniel Burnham

I recently got an email invitation from a Democratic congressional office to come to a "watch party" to view President Obama's State of the Union address. His "fourth-quarter priorities," according to the White House-inspired talking points of the message, are "home ownership, free community college, and high-paying jobs."

That sounds pretty good. But if you unpack the specifics, the president is offering pretty weak tea.

Free community college sounds terrific. Community college is the great American institution of the second chance. Obama proposes to have the federal government cover 75 percent of the cost, if states will participate. This could save students an average of over $3,000 a year.

The completion rate at community colleges is dismal -- on average less than 40 percent of students get a two-year degree within six years. The reason is not the relative low tuition, but the fact that most community college students are not right out of high school. Typically, they are juggling jobs, families, and trying to find time to attend classes and study.

By contrast, the original G.I. Bill of Rights of 1944 covered living expenses as well as tuition. The point is that this Obama proposal is not going to be passed by the Republican Congress in any case, so why not think big and act bold? Why not propose something that would make a major difference in the lives of millions of moderate income Americans and dare the Republicans to oppose it?

Obama's proposed housing program is even weaker tea. The president proposes to lower down-payment requirements on qualified applicants for FHA loans. He offers this against the backdrop of an administration foreclosure relief program, HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program, which has been a dismal failure.

The program, voluntary to the banks and designed for the convenience of the banks, was billed as sparing 3 to 4 million families from foreclosure. At best it will help perhaps a million homeowners when 10 million are still at risk.

Dropping down-payment requirements may increase some homeownership. But operating a foreclosure relief program that truly helped underwater homeowners -- something within the president's executive power that required no legislation -- would have helped a lot more.

It's not that this president is never capable of the bold stroke. He deserves credit for two bold actions in his sixth year in office. His program protecting as many as 5 million law-abiding undocumented immigrants from the risk of summary deportation by stretching executive power was nervy. So was his surprise move to normalize relations with Cuba.

Both policies are not only sensible on their own right, but they nicely split the Republican Party. Tea-Party Republicans are adamantly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform, but more business-friendly Republicans support it.

Likewise, normalization of relations with Cuba is favored by a majority of Hispanic Americans, as well as by business elites who see Cuba as a big market for trade and tourism. It's only a fraction of Cuban Americans, mostly of an older generation, who are opposed. The policy nicely boxes in rightwing Republicans like Marco Rubio.

It's not coincidental that Obama thinks big on policies that corporate America can support. By contrast, a larger scale program to support living expenses as well as tuition for community college students would spook deficit-averse business groups. And a true program of mortgage relief, complete with reductions in outstanding loan principal, is fiercely opposed by the banks.

In other words, Obama is bold when it doesn't require taking on corporate America or Wall Street.

This president is also an incrementalist by temperament. Politically, he has always viewed incremental reform as a way of building consensus.

We should be grateful, I suppose, that at the beginning of his seventh year Obama has belatedly realized that there is no consensus to be had; that he is moving boldly in at least some areas, whether the Republicans like it or not.

But given that Congress is going to pass just about nothing that he proposes (with the exception of odious trade legislation designed by and for multi-national corporations), and given that his little plans, in Burnham's famous phrase, "will not be realized," Obama might as well think even bigger.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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