In his State of the Union address on Tuesday President Obama dared Republican lawmakers to vote no on gun control legislation. The stirring culmination of his speech cited numerous victims of gun violence from recent years, many of whom were in the room, saying, “They deserve a vote.”
In a way his entire address shared that bold and unapologetic approach: Here are my proposals. I dare you to vote no. Most Republicans want no part of the Obama program, but after winning re-election by a decisive margin last year, Obama senses that the American people are with him. Indeed, he and the American people are pushing the Republican Party into a corner where every no vote compounds their irrelevance.
Obama has begun to challenge the conventional wisdom that has dominated politics in the past four years that reducing the deficit is priority number one for Washington. He said that a combination of spending cuts and higher taxes has already taken the government halfway toward a $4 trillion deficit reduction target, and the economic news continues to underscore his point. A recent story in The New York Times reported that growth in health care costs is slowing so dramatically that projections of future deficits are coming down sharply. Another story reported that the federal deficit in 2013 will fall below $1 trillion for the first time in five years.
Thus, Obama does not accept the need to decimate federal programs for the sake of deficit reduction. Instead, he continues to propose a balanced approach to the budget, including spending cuts and the closing of tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy.
His emphasis was on programs to bolster the middle class, partly by lifting struggling citizens into the middle class. He called for a higher minimum wage that would be indexed of inflation as a sure way of helping millions of people rise out of poverty — and reducing the government support that impoverished workers depend on. In essence, he was calling for an end to the government subsidy enjoyed by businesses who get away paying poverty wages because they know government will step in to fill the wage gap.
Freed from excessive fear of deficits, Obama was able to call for important new spending on infrastructure, including 70,000 structurally deficient bridges, which would create jobs, stimulate the economy and meet the nation’s long-term need. He continues to champion the importance of education, from pre-kindergarten to higher education. And he is committed to the energy innovations that will help us address the looming problem of climate change.
Obama challenged Congress to get serious about their duties, saying that the massive automatic budget cuts slated to take effect at the end of the month would do serious harm to the economy and cost jobs. The American people have come to understand that the continuing self-inflicted budget crises of recent years have been the product of Republican blackmail. Obama didn’t dare the Republicans to wreck the economy; rather, he warned them not to.
The world is different than the one he confronted when he took office four years ago. “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis,” he said Tuesday night. The Republican Party had tried to use the crisis to force through a radical anti-government agenda, and now that the crisis has mostly passed the appeal of their hostility to government has faded.
Still, high unemployment lingers, as well as the stagnation of middle class wages and gross economic disparities between the rich and everyone else. Obama’s speech ended with words extolling the power of citizenship — his belief that we all have a stake in the common good and a responsibility to one another. As citizens we are called on to participate — as voters, as workers, as community members, as family members. His programs are designed to encourage participation — to make work pay, to make it easier to vote and to lift the shadow of violence and poverty from our families and communities. It is a positive vision put forward by a president emboldened by the backing of the voters. Congress should not be timid about embracing it.
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