A State-Dominated State of the Union
A big laugh line: 'Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.'
President Obama delivered yet another speech with skill Tuesday night and, near the end when he spoke about victims of gun violence, emotion. The president's problem has never been with the theatrics of politics. It's the substantive and governing side where he continually falls short. So it was with this most recent State of the Union.
This speech stood in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama's inaugural address, when he emphasized liberal social issues and climate change at the expense of economic issues. Stung by press coverage that he had ignored jobs and deficit reduction, and with 39% in the Feb. 10 Gallup poll approving of his handling of the economy, the president reversed course Tuesday, devoting almost a third of the State of the Union to these two issues.
Nevertheless, the president's suggestions won't spur job creation and economic growth. His proposals were liberal, stale, unfocused and often counterproductive. For example, raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour would actually cost jobs.
After he offered such flimsy lines as "good, middle-class jobs . . . must be the North Star that guides our efforts" and "our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing," the president's projected payoff—to create 15 "global centers with high-tech jobs" and hazy promises of more research—was pretty pathetic.
It was jarring when Mr. Obama claimed credit for things he opposed, as when he boasted that America is producing "more oil at home than we have in 15 years . . . and more natural gas than ever before." This progress has happened despite the Obama administration, with far more new drilling on private and state lands than on federal land or waters.
As he routinely does, on Tuesday the president asserted things that simply aren't true, confident he won't be challenged by the press. Consider his claim that he's achieved $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction, putting him "more than halfway" toward a $4 trillion goal. Budget experts on Capitol Hill I've spoken to put the real deficit-reduction number at around $500 billion once the additional outlays Mr. Obama has added to the budget since taking office (such as the stimulus, the cost of payroll-tax holidays and additional discretionary domestic spending) are factored in.
The speech's biggest laugh line was the president's declaration that "nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime." It's hard to say exactly how much Mr. Obama's proposals will add to the deficit, but it's a lot. The White House briefing papers for the speech only contained three numbers: $50 billion for infrastructure (his "Fix-It-First" initiative), $15 billion to refurbish or demolish vacant or damaged properties in cities ("Project Rebuild"), and $1 billion for those 15 more manufacturing centers. This $66 billion in new spending is more than the additional revenue that will be generated this year by raising the top two tax brackets (money that has already been committed for Hurricane Sandy relief).
The White House did not say how much the other new initiatives in Mr. Obama's speech would cost. But new subsidies for wind, solar and geothermal power; more research into electric, biofuel, and natural gas-powered cars; the redesign of America's high schools; another mortgage-relief measure; additional funds for mapping the brain, fighting disease, expanding clean energy, and promoting advanced manufacturing; new foreign aid programs; and federal support for preschool for all low- and moderate-income children would all be expensive, easily bringing the tab to $100 billion or more a year. The universal preschool initiative unveiled last week by Mr. Obama's favorite left-wing think tank (the Center for American Progress) carried a $25 billion annual price tag.
Mr. Obama again argued Tuesday that prosperity depends upon more government spending. But America's anemic rates of job creation and GDP and income growth the past four years are evidence that this progressive proposition hasn't worked.
For all the gushing of liberal supporters, Mr. Obama's State of the Union, stripped to its core, made clear that he wants more spending. Otherwise the president's intellectual engine is running on empty. After his deeply unpopular but historic health-care bill, Mr. Obama has been reduced to shopworn proposals like a higher minimum wage or small-ball ideas like a reduction in the time it takes to vote.
A version of this article appeared February 14, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A State-Dominated State of the Union, and online at WSJ.com.