President Barack Obama outlined an ambitious second-term agenda Tuesday night in a State of the Union address that highlighted several issues particularly important to Florida, including climate change, immigration reform and voting rights. But the president should have provided more details about how he intends to tackle the most immediate challenge facing the nation: the automatic spending cuts that will take effect in less than three weeks unless he and Congress can agree on a deficit reduction package.
The economy is headed in a far better direction at the beginning of Obama's second term than it was when he took office four years ago. While the recovery remains painfully slow, the unemployment rate has dropped, housing prices have risen, auto sales are up and there is evidence of renewed development in Tampa Bay and much of the rest of Florida. But that steady progress will be jeopardized by the deep automatic spending cuts that will take effect March 1 unless the president and Congress act. After all the nation has gone through in the last four years, gridlock in Washington should not be allowed to send local communities back into an economic tailspin.
Obama renewed his call for a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases that would substitute for the automatic across-the-board cuts, which he correctly labeled "a really bad idea.'' But he should have been specific so Americans understand exactly what spending cuts and tax increases he would support. "We can do this,'' Obama said. But generalities on tax reform and entitlement reform coming from the president are no better than generalities coming from congressional Republicans who vow to oppose any tax increases.
Just how difficult it will be for the president to reach an agreement with Congress was underscored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's predictable response to Obama's speech. Rubio repeated the party line of no new taxes, tax cuts and antigovernment broadsides which do not help resolve the current situation. Like the president, the Florida Republican professed support for the middle class and job creation. But Obama's approach is the more realistic one, and the president should build public support for it by being more specific about what he would like to accomplish this month to avoid significant damage to the economy.
Instead, the president spent much of his address on familiar themes that take the long view. He outlined plans for creating more jobs by helping create more manufacturing hubs, building infrastructure, investing in early education and redesigning high schools to reflect today's economy. He renewed his call for incentives to spur more development of clean energy, emphasizing that none of his proposals Tuesday night would increase the deficit.
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many and not just the few,'' Obama said. "That it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours.''
This was an aggressive address aimed at building on the president's re-election victory and keeping his supporters engaged rather than reaching out to Republicans. He highlighted progressive issues such as making it easier for homeowners to refinance at lower interest rates and raising the minimum wage. He warned that if Congress will not tackle climate change, he will deal with the issue through executive actions.
Obama offers a progressive vision for the next four years that focuses on difficult issues that have been unresolved for years. But first the nation has to get past the March 1 budget deadline or risk another economic mess. While the president's long-term goals are solid, he missed an opportunity to explain his plan for getting through the most immediate crisis.