Putting a special stamp on the State of the Union

There are certain thoughts that are de rigueur in every State of the Union Address. Honor is paid to our men and women in uniform. American values, particularly those of the middle class and of entrepreneurs are praised. Our founding fathers, and sometimes our mothers as well, are recognized for their outstanding ideas and hard work.

On February 12, President Barack Obama will deliver his fifth State of the Union Address. He will have more political capital to spend than will remain in any of his final three. How should he allocate this precious capital?

Current conversation focuses on four areas. While he is certainly free to pass on any of the topics listed below, chances are that he will directly or indirectly address each.

  1. Gun control. The reason why this will be included is the answer to the simple question: “if not now, then when?” The scope of the proposals will likely be modest, defined in large part by Vice-President Joe Biden who has spent the past several weeks soliciting ideas from and negotiating with various interest groups involved in gun-related issues.
  2. Election reform. Once again, the reason is that the timing couldn’t be better. The images of Americans standing in lines to vote for over seven hours are still indelibly imprinted in our minds. The arbitrary and capricious regulations that many Republicans, particularly in Ohio and Florida, imposed upon the least enfranchised of our voters offended most Americans, including a majority of the GOP. The federal government has always been the true enforcer of democratic values. The federal government can and must act on those rare occasions when the American people actually feel that their civil liberties are at risk. Now is such a time.
  3. Making education affordable. In recent years most education reform has focused on establishing so-called achievement standards and implementing a system of measuring students and teachers against these standards. The finances of education have become increasingly important to President Obama; it may be one of those rare issues where a politician develops a refined sense of the “mood of the country” while on the campaign trail. The costs of college tuition and associated expenses have continued to rise while Republicans have tried to cut funding for Pell Grants. In a move unparalleled in recent times, a number of colleges, both private and public, have scaled back tuition increases. The value of a college education is being questioned in an unprecedented way in the post-World War II era. President Obama does not want to preside over a decrease in the number of high school graduates who go on to college. He will seek more aid to collegiate education. With many states and localities scaling back their funding of elementary and secondary education, he may well advocate increased federal funding for pre-collegiate education.
  4. Entitlement reform. The president succeeded in keeping the country from going over the “fiscal cliff.” Republicans wisely agreed to rescind a good portion of the Bush tax cuts. Democrats recognize that they need to cut spending and meaningful reduction cannot occur without reforming entitlements. As much as Republicans embrace the general idea of reducing entitlement spending, they are reluctant to advocate specifics which will alienate some of their constituents. It will behoove President Obama to take the lead in this reform and force the Republicans to have to play defense. In all likelihood he will work to develop a consensus for fundamental reform with Congressional Democrats and introduce it to the American people in the State of the Union.

House Speaker John Boehner and Congress in general have given President Obama a special gift. By operating in a fashion that garners only a 17% positive rating from the American people, they have given the president the moral and the tactical high ground. President Obama cannot count on that lasting forever. In recent months he has indicated that he is comfortable “seizing the moment.” It is more than a hope; indeed it is a likelihood that he will set a clear national agenda in his State of the Union Address.