A State of the Union Wish List

Here are three things I wish Obama would say, but probably won’t, in next Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The first is to start delivering on his first-term promise to change the tone of debate in the nation’s capital. In his January 14 press conference, the president said that House Republicans have suspicions about government’s role “to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older” and to “make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat.” Issuing blanket statements like this about your political opponents is neither the way to change the tone of debate in Washington nor the way to publicly characterize people you’re about to negotiate with over issues – such as deficit reduction, immigration, and gun control – that are vital to the nation’s future. Obama would be well advised not only to avoid negative and mostly unjustified accusations of this type, but even to try to say something nice about Republicans.

Second, the president should say something as specific as possible about his ideas on further deficit reduction. Between the 2011 Budget Control Act and the 2012 American Taxpayers Relief Act, Congress and President Obama have reduced the deficit over the next ten years by $2.4 trillion (including interest savings). If the $1.2 trillion (again including interest) from the sequester is actually implemented, the total deficit reduction so far will be $3.6 trillion over ten years. Not bad for a dysfunctional government. But at least another $1 or $2 trillion is needed even to maintain a steady debt/GDP ratio over the next decade. Worse, there has been virtually nothing saved from entitlement programs, and no agreement so far that would put Medicare and other health programs on a more sustainable growth path. It would be a breakthrough if the president highlighted and expanded his offer of changes in entitlement programs like he did in his recent press conference. He should also say that he is ready to talk about savings in Medicare – while perhaps adding that he would be especially interested in discussions about savings that could be achieved by having the higher income elderly pay a higher fraction of their health care costs.

Third, President Obama and his wife and children have set a wonderful standard for marriage and American family life. It would be difficult to exaggerate the damage that is being done to American children and the nation’s GDP by the tsunami of nonmarital births and the relentlessly rising share of American children being reared by single parents. For starters, kids in female-headed families are four times as likely to be poor as kids living with their married parents. Black children bear the heaviest burden in this regard because well over 70 percent of them are born into single parent families. Similarly, over 50 percent of Hispanic children are born outside marriage, imposing a heavy burden on them as well. Economic opportunity is a theme President Obama has strongly emphasized, but the astounding level of nonmarital births is like a little motor pushing up poverty rates and reducing opportunity for millions of American children – and disproportionately so for black and Hispanic children.

The president has a better chance than anyone in the nation to have an impact on this problem. He should include at least two paragraphs about marriage in his State of the Union address. In the first paragraph, he should describe the advantages of marriage to adults, children, and society, which can be done without mentioning the negative effects of single-parent families. In the second paragraph, he should announce that once a month for the next year, he plans to attend a predominantly black, Hispanic, white, or integrated church – as often as possible accompanied by his wife – to sing the praises of marriage and the great contribution his marriage and family have made to his personal life and to lives of his wife and children.

President Obama has a chance to hit a policy trifecta – encouraging civility in the nation’s capital, reducing the deficit while at last addressing entitlement and especially Medicare spending, and speaking out for marriage as a way to reduce poverty and increase opportunity in America.