State of the Union
Quick note about tonight's State of the Union Address: I'm not expecting too much to be said about the budget, deficit or debt.
There are four reasons.
First, as much as a budget person likes me hates to admit it, all three of those topics are highly contentious, wonkish and almost certainly will darken the mood. In other words, they'll do exactly what most president's don't want to do with a SOTU.
Second, the president will want to use the speech to talk about his vision, that is, about the "promised land" voters will find if they follow his lead. He will want to make it clear that budget problems will be solved, or at least diminished, as the country moves in that direction rather than the country will move in the right direction if it solves the budget problem.
Third, there will be plenty of time in the coming weeks for the White House to talk about these topics. In fact, as soon as the SOTU and the follow-up events the administration has planned around the country are over, that's just about all it will be discussing through the end of March. The SOTU is almost the admnistration's last chance not to focus on these things.
In my reaction to President Obama's state of the union address, I wondered, "If we win the future, who loses?" and suggested that the analogy to a "Sputnik moment" was inappropriate. In his New York Times column this weekend, Greg Mankiw makes a similar point, urging us to see "Emerging Markets as Partners, not Rivals." The key excerpt:
Listening to the president, you might think that competition from China and other rapidly growing nations was one of the larger threats facing the United States. But the essence of economic exchange belies that description. Other nations are best viewed not as our competitors but as our trading partners. Partners are to be welcomed, not feared. As a general matter, their prosperity does not come at our expense.
The trouble with the State of the Union address is that it is a good 20-minute speech that drags on for about an hour. Whatever is useful about it is drowned out by the rest, which is typically a poor combination for cheerleading and inconsistent policy suggestions. What did I like about the speech?
Unless I missed it, the president stayed away from the two big topics that are dominating much of the discussion inside the Beltway these days -- the debt ceiling that's about to be reached and the continuing resolution that's about to expire.
This is not surprising: If you look at the speech as a whole it's clear that the White House didn't want to talk about legislative battles or...and far more important...didn't want the discussion after the speech to be about process. Think back to the health care reform debate. Those types of endless arguments (For example...Should reconciliation be used to consider the legislation in the Senate?) not only scored no points but angered those outside of Washington who quickly got tired of the political and procedural jockeying that seemed to go nowhere.
Aside from the seating arrangements, the theatrics and choreography of tonight’s State of the Union speech were far different than usual and gave the White House a definite communications advantage as far as the budget is concerned.
The usual schedule is for the SOTU to be delivered 3-5 days before the budget is released. That means the president typically has a very short time to talk about the big positive themes included in the speech before the specific revenue and spending changes become the news. In some cases this has started to happen within just a day of the SOTU because the budget details started to leak.
This year will be different because the budget won’t be sent to Congress until the week of February 14 at the earliest. That will give the White House 3 weeks or more to keep the focus on the themes and dreams the president mentioned without having to shift to defending the specific proposals. That will make it far tougher for the GOP to criticize what the president talks about and push them to find creative ways of changing the discussion back to the Republican agenda.