State of the Union

The Thinker by Rodin

President Obama gave a pretty good state of the union speech on Tuesday. He ended it with the usual rhetorical flourish that speaks more to our aspirations than to reality. He closed with:

We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it’s because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.

I won’t be running for president so there is no chance that I will be giving a state of the union speech. However, if I were to give one it would read in part a lot like this:

Thank you very much. As you know it is my duty as president to annually report on the state of the union. Unfortunately, I have to report that the state of our union is fractious. At no time since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. Extremes on both sides of the aisle are pulling us apart as a country. This extreme polarity as well as refusal on both sides to move toward meaningful compromise are undermining our national security, economic growth and put our nationhood at jeopardy.

Barry Goldwater once famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater was dead wrong. Our liberty is only sustained through finding and expanding our common ground. It happens by moving toward consensus rather than confrontation. At this critical time, true patriotism will be measured in our ability to come to consensus and make painful but necessary choices that one Congress and White House after another has punted.

We cannot undo these past damages, but we can move toward a sustainable and prosperous future for our country. Finger pointing no longer serves any national purpose. None of us here are blameless. We all contributed to our national problems. It includes me, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and new Speaker John Boehner. Many of us followed what we believed was the right and sustainable path. Sometimes an individual policy we advocated may have been right for the nation. However, if it is not congruent with our national needs it is still wrong. What can be said is that, in the aggregate, we were all wrong and have been mostly going in the wrong direction for decades.

For example, taking care of our senior citizens in retirement is a worthy national endeavor, but only if programs for them like Social Security and Medicare are put on a sound footing and are soberly and competently administered. It is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed Medicare costs to expand without addressing its inefficiencies and creating a plan to keep it solvent. Similarly, it is scandalous that both Democrats and Republicans allowed the last Administration to lead us into a war based on false pretenses. It was scandalous to offer tax cuts without offsetting these tax cuts with reductions in government services. My administration, previous administrations and previous Congresses failed to competently manage and govern our own country. Time and time again we put short-term thinking and ideology ahead of the national interest.

These are facts beyond any reasonable dispute. The evidence is overwhelming and can be found in record numbers of mortgage defaults, our bloated budget deficits, the high unemployment, the growing ranks of our homeless, our obesity epidemic and a fouled environment. By virtually any metric that you can use, our government has failed our job as national stewards. We, its leaders, have failed America.

The state of our union is fractious at best and alarming at worse. Now we must right-size our government so that it meets the needs of our nation. We need a new national strategy and we need sound tactics that align with our national strategy. Our strategy requires clear national goals, and both parties must agree on these national goals.

I offer six goals. Our most immediate challenge is not the budget deficit, as wrenching as it is in scope and size. It is to break the back of unemployment in this country, which has been dangerously high. In breaking the back of unemployment, we must do it in a way that creates good jobs that will restore our fading middle class. We don’t want to restore it by putting talented people to work flipping burgers or sweeping floors. Prosperity drives everything and makes anything possible. We can do this today by continuing to invest in common sense infrastructure projects, all of which will aid our current and future prosperity. To facilitate that our infrastructure investments are made wisely, we need an independent commission that places our money in investments that will create an improved infrastructure in the most productive ways possible.

That is our short-term goal and it should be easy for us all to agree on. However, infrastructure does not just happen. It will take money, and if we cannot agree on something simple like raising taxes on the rich to levels that were in effect in the Clinton administration, then we must keep borrowing the money. Projects that promote short-term employment and are most needed to improve our infrastructure should get the highest priority.

Our long-term goals should also not be controversial. I propose five long-term goals, in priority:

  1. Ending the extreme partisanship in this country
  2. Fix the federal government’s deficit spending
  3. Living in a sustainable way
  4. Making the United States the 21st century leader for new technologies and services
  5. Ensuring that all Americans receive quality health care

First, partisanship. Partisanship is not necessarily bad. However, our partisanship has reached extreme and dangerous levels. This did not happen by accident. It happened because we permit gerrymandering of our legislative districts where partisan interests are unduly represented and the interests of moderates were squeezed out. To solve this problem, Congress must pass and the states must ratify a constitutional amendment requiring all states to draw federal congressional districts in a politically impartial manner to be overseen by our federal judiciary.

Our government’s deficit spending has reached dangerous levels. We do not want America’s future to be like Greece’s present. To achieve fiscal solvency, a number of unpopular things must be done. Entitlements like Medicare must either have self-funding mechanisms in place or be limited to a percent of GDP or the federal budget by law. Both must be governed by independent and impartial commissions empowered to make changes to the system to ensure their viability. Medicare spending, for example, could be limited to twenty percent of federal expenditures or require premium increases annually to ensure that it remains solvent. Do these things and most of our other federal financial problems will take care of themselves.

America’s failure to live in a sustainable way increases the likelihood of war and suffering at levels so extreme they are hard to imagine, but are frighteningly real. Climate change and population growth are already causing wars, unrest and mass migration. It contributed to unrest in Tunisia. We must find a way to cap our population growth and live sustainably with nature. Our failure to get our environmental act together inside our country and with the rest of the world ultimately dooms not just our country but also our species. It will change life irretrievably here in our sacred home, the Earth. However, if we succeed we will do so by developing many of the products the world needs so that it too can live sustainably. Being green is not just good for the planet, it is good for our prosperity and it helps mitigate future wars and immense suffering.

To prosper, we must out innovate the rest of the world. Our prosperity rests in nurturing our human capital. Not only do we want to create business environments to allow companies like Google and Apple to flourish, we want to make sure that our children receive a first class education so when it is their time they can out innovate the rest of the world in the future. This cannot happen when we won’t pay teachers salaries that correspond to their importance to our nation, or when school districts in states like Oregon cannot afford to put their children in public schools five days a week.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must make health care available and affordable to all, not just to those who can afford it. America cannot flourish unless we are healthy. There are plenty of examples in other countries of national health care systems that work. Some align very well with the American way. Japan’s health care system, for example, offers enormous competition at very reasonable prices. Let’s let an independent commission tell us which of these many plans will work best here in the United States, then let’s move aggressively forward to make it happen in our nation.

I am offering six steps toward a prosperous and sustainable future for our country. I need each of you to work in the common national interest. If you do so, you and this Congress will be forever revered in our national history.

Thank you and good night.

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