In yet another bid to position himself as rising above the political fray, President Barack Obama is expected to issue a renewed appeal for both parties to find common ground in his State of the Union Message on Tuesday. Yet he appears to be on a collision course with grass-roots conservatives who insist they have no intention of backing down on their demands for massive cuts in federal spending.
“There is a clear rhetorical contradiction between a call for sizeable deficit reduction and a simultaneous proposal to spend on favored priorities,” University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax. “I am waiting to see how Obama words these provisions in the speech.
“If cleverly done, he may be able to obscure the contradiction from many. But my guess is that tea party activists, among others, will grab hold of the inconsistency immediately,” he says.
Administration officials hope to use the address to frame the looming debate over raising the debt ceiling and slashing government spending. Obama will rechristen infrastructure and stimulus spending as “competitive investments for the future.” And in doing so, he also may frame the political debate going into the fast-approaching 2012 election year.
Observers say the president will try to “wall off” aspects of the federal budget from the budget-cutting fervor spreading across Capitol Hill, by hailing the programs as vital to America’s future global competitiveness.
The administration hopes to preserve as sacrosanct from the budget-cutting ax that conservatives are openly whetting: education, scientific research, infrastructure, and energy development.
The president also may call for a reduction in the corporate tax rate in order to attract more business and jobs to U.S. shores. But sources say he has assured liberal interest groups that he will not offer specific reductions to the major entitlement programs, such as Social Security. Most analysts agree those programs must be modified to restore the long-term fiscal balance of a nation whose national debt stands at a staggering $14 trillion.
“If Obama proposes to cut the outrageously high, job-killing corporate tax rate, conservatives and tea partyers will accept that and will enthusiastically fight to lower it more,” conservative movement icon Richard Viguerie tells Newsmax. “If he proposes corporate tax cuts in an effort to balance calls for more spending, he needs to meditate on the message the voters sent last November: Cut taxes, cut spending, balance the budget now.”
As that statement suggests, Obama and grass-roots conservatives appear to be on a collision course.
Based on the advance peek at his State of the Union address that the president provided this weekend to his Organizing for America supporters, he will once again make an impassioned plea for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to find common ground.
It’s likely that the president will point to the lame-duck session, which included an extension of the Bush tax cuts that conservatives liked, plus a START arms-reduction treaty and social legislation many of them did not like, as a model of how he would like to see the parties work together going forward.
Polls show Obama’s approval has surged since those end-of-year legislative victories.
But Obama’s expected emphasis on protecting certain areas of the budget is clearly at loggerheads with a Republicanized Congress that came to power on the strength of reducing the role of the federal government.
On Saturday, for example, the administration announced it wants to spend $1 billion to create a government drug development center to boost the creation of new pharmaceuticals. It is doing so, it says, because private drug development has dropped off in recent years. The implication: Government intervention is needed to achieve what private markets cannot.
Such spending is anathema to grass-roots conservatives, who aren’t likely to be impressed with the idea that some government spending represents “competitive investment.”
“Government spending is still spending,” Florida tea party chief Everett Wilkinson, a member of the Tea Party Patriots national leadership council, tells Newsmax. “This is like calling pork the other white meat. Every penny comes from somewhere, and we need to cut spending in all areas.”
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell apparently has heard that message. He has been careful to stay a step ahead of the tea party juggernaut that swept House Republicans back into power in November. On Sunday, he predicted that Democrats’ efforts to paint Republicans as stuck in the past and indifferent to job creation simply won’t work.
“Well, look . . . with all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment, so I think you will hear the president talk about investing a lot Tuesday night,” McConnell said on Fox News Sunday.
“We've got a huge spending problem here. We've had over $1 trillion annual deficit each of the last two years. Our friends on the other side a couple of years ago passed a budget that will double the national debt in five [years] and triple it in 10.
“I mean, most of us think, and most . . . of the American people think that we need to do something about this and start doing it now,” he said.
Rick Geddes, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, tells Newsmax that, barring changes in the way projects are selected and administered, he’s skeptical that expanded government “investments” will be any more effective at job creation than previous infrastructure stimulus.
Geddes, author of "Road to Renewal: Private Investments in U.S. Infrastructure Spending," points to the notorious “bridge to nowhere" and other earmark projects to illustrate how federal spending has become seriously politicized.
He even warns poor “investment spending” decisions could hurt rather than help U.S. global competitiveness.
“It’s not the case that more government spending per se will make the U.S. economy more competitive globally,” he says. “It could easily be the case that spending more money by government could make the U.S. economy less competitive — if it’s spent on wasteful projects.”
Among the key buzzwords to listen for during the president’s State of the Union Address, based on his preliminary video presentation to his supports of his campaign:
- “Competitive investments” for the future — Federal expenditures the administration believes could play an important role in creating U.S. jobs, which therefore should not be on the table when budget cuts are discussed. It is also a signal that while he will try to work with Republicans, he won’t kowtow to the grass-roots agenda. Watch for how many times he uses words such as “innovate” and “dynamic” to describe his vision for the economy of the future.
- “We’re in a different place” — The economy, Obama will say, no longer is hovering on the brink of disaster. Although no one is comfortable with 9.4 percent unemployment, things have gotten better than they were when he took over two years ago. To signal he’s not satisfied with the status quo, however, Obama will say “we’ve still got a lot more to do.” But the bottom-line message is: The economy is on an upward trend.
- “Find common ground” — Republicans and Democrats should continue to negotiate compromises similar to the tax-cut extension that, opinion polls show, have revived independent voters’ faith in the president’s ability to move the nation beyond partisan gridlock.
- “Making sure the economy is working for everybody” — Everyone is supposed to benefit from an improving economy, not just the wealthy. The administration knows that middle-class and blue-collar workers may hold the key to the president’s hopes for re-election, and can’t allow its recent embrace of the business community to alienate its supporters on the left. “The president doesn’t want to give in to GOP priorities completely and alienate his liberal base,” says Sabato. “At the same time, and for the first time, he has to sound and act like a fiscal hawk. It won’t be easy.”
- “Deal with debt and deficits in a responsible way” — Translations: Tax increases are just as important as spending decreases in order to balance the economy.
In the remarks released so far, the president talks about what it will take to “win the future.”
His speech appears to link his plans to make the American economy more productive and competitive with the vision for a renewed America he laid out during his successful presidential campaign in 2008.
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