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The delivery was quintessential Barack Obama, which is to say brilliant, but the words could have been Bill Clinton’s.
The lofty principles remain, but the agenda has become pedestrian—constrained by a $1.4 trillion budget deficit and partisan trench warfare where progress is measured in inches and not miles.
A state of the union address that was supposed to herald passage of a massive health reform bill as the centerpiece of the president’s first year in office instead looked back at far more modest achievements: “We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers…We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.” And, he added, “We stabilized the financial system.”
Economic historians may conclude that saving the banks in the midst of both a massive financial panic and a political transition was the signature event of the past year. But Obama the politician knows that in the meantime, he’s getting no shout-outs for his trouble. Not from the banks he saved—whose arrogance and sense of entitlement in this episode reek. And not from voters. As Obama said last night about the bank bailout: “I hated it.You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.”
Looking forward, Obama could only display his scaled-back ambitions: Trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, a national competition to improve schools, and tackling childhood obesity are all important, but they are a far piece from the president’s clarion cry of “change you can believe in.”
Similarly, the president’s vision for health reform is far narrower than a year ago. He said little about controlling long-term health costs or delivering care more efficiently. Instead, he focused on modest insurance reform, and cried out for “better ideas” from Republicans.
And what of tax policy? Not a word about reform, or the need to restructure a crumbling revenue code. Instead, he offered only what appear to be a clutch of highly targeted business tax breaks: a tax credit for small businesses who “hire new workers or raise wages,” eliminating capital gains taxes for small firms, and new tax incentive for all companies to invest in capital equipment.
Much of this reflects the Democrats' focus—one might even say obsession—with bringing down the unemployment rate before the November elections. I’ve been skeptical about these tax subsidies, but, who knows, they may help a bit in the short run.
What they do not do is add up to what Obama described when he spoke to Congress last February. Then, he portrayed his initiatives as “a vision for America…a blueprint for our future.” I didn’t hear any of that last evening.
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