State of the Union could be better


It’s tradition for presidents to declare in late January that the state of the union is strong. But President Obama will assess a nation tonight that’s not as strong as it should be.
One year ago, the union was on the brink of financial ruin. Now the country is carrying the burdens of a 10 percent unemployment rate, a record number of mortgage foreclosures, and the heavy cost of two prolonged wars.
As more families struggle to pay their bills, Washington keeps racking up greater deficits and spends money seemingly without genuine concern for the long-term consequences.
Just about anyone can fill in the blank for the president’s speech: The state of our union is angry.
The clearest evidence yet was the stunning upset in Massachusetts by Republican Scott Brown for a U.S. Senate seat held for nearly 50 years by liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy.
Obama’s aides promise the president’s address tonight will demonstrate that “he gets it.”
Toward that goal, the administration unveiled several proposals in advance of the speech. Among the most significant is a call to freeze discretionary domestic spending not related to national defense for three years.
This move would affect about one-eighth of the federal budget, including education, nutrition, energy, and national parks. It would not touch Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans programs, or military spending.
The proposed spending freeze was criticized immediately by the liberal wing of the Democrats, who said it would harm vulnerable citizens, and by Republicans, who said it’s like dieting after winning a pie-eating contest. There’s some truth in both arguments.
But Democrats have room to maneuver within this overall spending cap, which does not require across-the-board spending limits. If they want to spend more on food stamps, or heating oil for low-income families, for example, they would need to spend less on, say, agribusiness subsidies or windmill farms.
Conservatives are correct to point out that this freeze would put only the smallest of dents in annual deficits.
For the fiscal year that begins in October, it would save about $15 billion, while the deficit is projected to be about $1 trillion. You have to start somewhere, but it is a small bite of the apple.
While lawmakers are debating the merits of saving $250 billion over 10 years, they’re also planning to raise the government’s borrowing limit by $1.9 trillion or so. And the Senate yesterday rejected a worthy proposal to create a bipartisan commission that would have tried to rein in the national debt.
A freeze on domestic spending would be a small step indeed.
But at least it would turn a portion of the federal budget in the right direction.
As much as conservatives love to target discretionary domestic programs, they’re a relatively small culprit in recent federal deficits. Military spending has increased each year for more than a decade, reaching $534 billion.
And that total doesn’t include the annual costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, routinely exceeding $100 billion.
There’s some fine print in the president’s spending freeze. It wouldn’t take effect until October. That means it wouldn’t apply to a second “jobs bill” that is working its way through Congress — the House version would cost $154 billion. The Senate is debating a somewhat less costly version.
Obama needs to get people back to work. The economy won’t fully recover until he does. But he also needs to be mindful of piling more debt on a tab the country increasingly can’t afford. The state of the union will get worse if bigger bites aren’t taken out of spending. The president eventually will have to do more than the freeze he plans to announce.