Two starkly different versions of America’s future were presented Tuesday night. President Barack Obama, in his typical soaring rhetoric but lacking specific details, called upon America’s can-do spirit and staunch belief in a better future to return the country to global prominence and create jobs.
In the Republican response, Rep. Paul Ryan essentially said “retrench, retrench, retrench.”
In reality, it will take a combination of these approaches to solve the large and vexing problems facing the nation. Government spending must be reduced much more than President Obama proposed. Yet, a consistent push from Washington will be needed to remake our education system, spur clean energy development and fix our crumbling infrastructure.
The president began his second State of the Union address by acknowledging that his month’s shooting in Tucson, which seriously injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, prompted reflection on the increasingly divisive political debates. As a response, many members of Congress sat beside colleagues from the other party rather than the traditional partisan seating during such speeches.
“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” the president said to applause.
He bluntly outlined many problems.
America is losing it prominence in research and development as countries such as China and India make strategic investments in technology and education. This means American jobs are lost to other countries.
Our education system isn’t up to the rigors of the 21st century. At a time when jobs require an educated and flexible work force, a quarter of U.S. students don’t finish high school and the U.S. ranks ninth globally for the proportion of young people with college degrees.
Our infrastructure is woefully inadequate. South Korean homes have greater Internet access than those in the U.S. Russia invests more in roads and railways than the U.S.
To address these problems, the president proposed more investment in clean energy development, school innovation and road, rail and wireless service.
He offered few details on where this money would come from, a big shortcoming when the growing federal deficit is a major concern. He did call for a five-year freeze on “annual domestic spending,” a limited category that accounts for only 12 percent of federal spending.
The speech was also the first in the president’s 2012 re-election campaign, and he took a predictable turn to the middle, highlighting planks in the Republican platform such as simplifying the tax code, ensuring government lives within its means as households do, streamlining government regula-tions and implementing tort reform to lower medical costs.
In the Republican response, Rep. Ryan said shrinking government and the national debt and lowering taxes was the way to save America.
“We are at a moment, where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged, America’s best century will be considered our past century,” the Wisconsin Republican said, reiterating repeatedly the GOP’s belief in limited government.
“Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness and wise consumer choices has never worked — and it won’t work now,” he added.
The challenge for Congress and the president is to focus government efforts where they are most needed and can be of the most value with a willingness to shrink the rest.