U.S.Domestic Policy Issues from SOTU 2015

When compared to economic recoveries in other nation-states in the world,  there is much to be optimistic about when looking at the U.S. recovery. After 7 years of economic despair, and more importantly financial disorder, the Obama Administration is seizing  the opportunity to take credit for an economic policy that is seeing green shoots.  Without question, Mr. Obama has shouldered the weight of the U.S. led global recession that began in fall of 2008.  From the start of his Presidency, he was handed a portfolio that would have weakened the knees of any man or woman in the White House.  So, the opportunity to stand before the American public and tout the role of his policies at a time when the recovery is expanding, he owned the recovery.  Of course his words left the podium with a bit of swagger.

Ch2_Chart 11_Strengthening US RecoveryAnd it is the strengthening economy that opened the door for Mr. Obama to introduce his slate of domestic policies. It is true that the current unemployment rate is low, presently hovering between 5% and 6% depending on which of the 50 states one considers.  But many left the workforce altogether or have settled in to permanent part-time status.  Graduate from universities are entering the work force in lower numbers and adults in the 20’s have accepted that a return to home may be the only financially viable choice when burdened by the heavy weight of college debt. The numbers for the seasonally adjusted data are yet to be scored for 2015. So, it must be stated that employment insecurity remains for far too many in the country.  The President was understandably optimistic but there is more work to be done in terms of the job market and hiring in 2015.

He used the phrase “middle-class economics” as his frame for new tax proposals. His tax plan includes a $500.00 tax credit for married couples who each hold a job and increasing the top child care credit to $3000.00.  Spokespersons for the administration have linked the tax credit to the costs of commuting, child-care, and making it more affordable for each household earner to remain employed while raising a family.  These modifications in the tax system rightly so address the needs of the middle class, but in a GOP majority Congress, are not likely to make it through the legislative gauntlet.

And the proposal for a nearly $320 billion in new revenue as a result of raising the capital gains and dividends rates, which the wealthy have benefited from sounds reasonable, and “American”.  But once again, in an environment where Representatives are beholden to fund-raising, where those who contribute to re-election campaigns will be affected by a hike in their taxes from 25%-28%, again, this will be an unlikely solution to the growing economic inequality in the U.S.  Elected officials are interested in job security themselves and while there is a minority of Republican and Democratic representatives who would be willing to vote on a bill that would alter the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans along with the largest financial institutions, there is little chance that such a bill would pass.  It is unfortunate that any serious talk in Washington about real tax reform, even introducing a flat tax, is not feasible.  Why? Because it would require a more equal distribution of what each party is willing to put on the table in order to achieve something that will rebalance the tax code.  Good suggestions, Mr. President. But you are going to be stopped in your tracks with the “Peter and Paul” metaphor.  You will win supporters for your tax ideas, but they will never get beyond the hopper.

Within the context of “middle class economics“, the President spoke about paid sick leave, maternity leave, and pay equality.  These issues impact female voters and he is sure to get a positive response from women.  But in a political climate where some consider a form of “pure capitalism” as the solution for what ails the U.S., he is sure to get push back.  At a time when the economic recovery is viable, still fragile but gaining traction, the business community will be unlikely to support such ideas.  In some sectors of American culture capitalism on steroids is viewed as the only answer to both the social and economic woes that have plagued the U.S.  And while “middle class economics” makes sense at the social level, until Congress can come to terms with the budget compromises that must be achieved, elected Representatives will provide little leadership for the business community.  The promise of profits will drown out consideration for policies that could improve the lives of female workers.

It is doubtful that Mr. Obama will be able to work with the Legislative branch to wring out any of his ideas.  And he will be limited in what he is able to accomplish in the next 2 years by simply going it alone.  There are those wins he has gained through his use of Executive authority, but there are also real limits to what the Executive branch can do. More doubtful that Congressional members will show a willingness to tackle tough issues which could trim their re-election coffers.

The President also introduced to the nation his idea to address  education inequality; free education at all community colleges. Again, an important issue plaguing the future of the country.  Education inequality and college debt are impacting the younger generation’s employment choices as well as their decisions about career opportunities.  The United States must stay abreast of current technologies and realities that accompany the dynamic global economy.  The U.S. economy is dependent on a highly trained and disciplined workforce as competition for jobs means that only the best will be able to secure the salaries that further the American dream and the lifestyle that typifies that dream.

COMMUNITY_COLLEGE

Two years at  community college has many elements that are encouraging when one considers the disparity between socio-economic classes.  But this worthy idea must be accompanied with substance and measures that convince those who balk at the realities of the balance sheet.  Free?  Nothing is free.  Someone has to pay the professors.  So, Mr. President, we know the SOTU speech has time restrictions, but please, put a little meat on that idea.  The speech is being covered by every major network and the content could be a headline in the next day’s newspaper.  A little meat could have propelled the idea in to a topic of discussion in many sectors of the country.  Instead, the bare bones of the conversation will ensure that the pubic remains on the sidelines.

What about setting forth a real plan that is integrated within the realities of American society?  Free? No, Mr. President.  How about explaining your good idea with the frame of announcing that the community college system would be at no cost for all those student who maintain a minimum GPA and demonstrate the ability to complete an educational plan within a set amount of time?  How about linking 2 years of community college education to a community service plan under which every student must complete “X” amount of community service hours before enrollment is guaranteed for the next semester?  Or what about setting forth an agenda for the young people in the country to choose either college or some form of active service for 2 years as a standard in the nation.  Such a plan would set forth a foundation for alleviating the unemployment burden that many states are carrying and would create a social environment where rather than being unemployed young people would have a choice of direction as an expectation.  Choices and avenues for moving in to the life style of work, being a dependable employee, and for developing the confidence to contribute to the market place can be part of a more comprehensive plan for making 2 years of community college “free” throughout the country.  It would be better linked to an integrated new standard that expects young people to choose a path after graduation from high school.  For those not ready to choose education,  the expectation can be that any choice is viable and equally esteemed as 2 years at the community college.

The idea is a worthy one, but Mr. President, be bold and present a vision.  Step up even more fully as the leader of the nation.  Set a standard, an expectation that young Americans can find their footing and the country is willing to retool a range of intersecting avenues so that the nations future remains bright. The following website is a good start for developing a more integrated approach to the President’s solution of unemployed or debt ridden young people who cannot seem to find their place in the workforce:  http://www.nationalservice.gov/

Mr. Obama briefly mentioned his administration’s approach to the politically contentious problem of immigration reform.  He gave a speech on November 20, 2014 when he announced the Executive actions his administration would take to “make our immigration system more fair and more just“.  Yet he did not leverage his moment in the SOTU address to draw public support for Congress to legislate a more “comprehensive fix.”  Possibly too contentious? Or possibly not helpful to the down line Democrats who are looking to best contend with political life as the minority in both Houses? Nothing much about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is clearly one of the most pressing decisions in Washington.  Another “punt” but in a 70 minutes speech, something has to be cut.  Still, Keystone is “state of the union” writ large on so many levels and it deserved more than,” …let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline” from the President.  This decision has been in suspension for a number of years and under a Republican majority Congress, the people need to know more about President Obama’s position beyond a veiled threat of a veto.

Within the speech, the President set the tone for the 21st century with an enthusiastic vision of science, technology, Research and Development along with a free and open internet in every classroom throughout the country.  This tone was an important one as there is a growing disparity between those communities that are progressing with the digital age and those communities that are lagging behind.  The United States must ensure that the nation itself establishes a baseline in terms of technology and access to integrated digital platforms.

State of the Union AddressAnother central frame that the President used as he faces a Republican controlled Congress was that of “values”.  His emphasis on American values was well placed.  As the leader of the nation, it was good for the President to remind all citizens, all the elected, of the shared values that create a shared identity.  This is the unique role of the president.  One that Mr. Obama has not always been comfortable with.  Perhaps not having a strong father in his own life, he does not find it easy to step in to the shoes of “father” of a nation.  Yet, in this address, he seemed more at ease with framing the values that all can agree on as American.

For the domestic policy issues, the optics were good. The President framed his domestic agenda with a sense of visioning and leadership for the nation. Maybe this president is starting to learn about the importance of the optics because while the points made are difficult to legislate or enact, the speech itself was a good one.  But as far as substance, his proposals represented a lot of cotton candy, all air and no substance given the political culture that he must contend with.  His ideas were noteworthy, but how will these ideas translate in to actual legislation?  There are limits to the use of Executive power.  Without a groundswell of public support to pressure their elected officials, the content for domestic policy was about like cotton candy.

Cotton candy? Or some other type of confection?  What do you think? 

Beth is a consultant and keynote speaker. She specializes in World Issues, International Relations, and the human story. Beth assists her clients in better understanding the nexus between politics, religion, transnational terrorism, IPE, and the all important human impact. Contact Beth at info@outoftheboxintl.com. You can also send her a Facebook message at Out of the Box International or a Tweet at Beth Hill-Skinner

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