I think the President’s speech was inspired, but not specific enough to be inspiring. I noticed he managed to talk about fiscal responsibility and the need to follow through on the recommendations of his fiscal commission, without making any of the necessary hard choices actually sound that hard. Nowhere will you find the phrase “raise revenue” (let alone the dirtier word “taxes”) or “cut benefits” (let alone “entitlements”).
CNN’s Jeanne Sahadi wrote this piece that emphasizes the same major complaint: no specifics. I wrote the remarks below for Jeanne last night, part of an online panel of experts who gave their quick reactions to the speech. (**UPDATE 12:30 pm: here’s the link to those reactions.)
For most of his State of the Union speech, President Obama made promises for additional federal spending and tax cuts, motivated by the ongoing needs of our still-struggling economy. It was only toward the end of his speech that he reiterated his commitment to fiscal responsibility. He proposed a five-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending, which he says would save around $400 billion over the next ten years. But this amounts to a mere 6 percent reduction of projected deficits and a less than 1 percent reduction in total federal spending.
As the President’s own fiscal commission made clear, any real solution will have to involve cuts to defense and national security spending as well, and reforms to the largest mandatory spending programs, Social Security and Medicare. At the same time, recognizing that it will be nearly impossible (as well as undesirable) to cut benefits across the board in order to “flat line” entitlement spending, the President’s commission recognized that additional tax revenue–above the historical average and above current policy extended–will be needed. Everything in the federal budget needs to be put on the deficit-reduction table.
While the President acknowledged his commission’s message on the need for major reforms to these major programs, he avoided mentioning that these involve tough policy choices about whose benefits will be cut and whose taxes will be raised.
The President sounded committed on the general principle of fiscal responsibility but is still not courageous enough to spell out to the American people what exactly that will require. If he does not take the lead on that difficult conversation, and instead continues the easier practice of promising and following through on more deficit spending, there is very little hope that we will see the kinds of policy changes that are needed to put our nation back on an economically sustainable path.