Obama Should Use the State of the Union to Refocus Economic Policy on Equitable Growth and Full Employment, Not Deficits

Much of Washington’s punditry class has already issued a collective yawn over the prospects of the State of the Union, arguing (probably correctly) that the President’s inaugural was far more inspiring and interesting than anything we are likely to hear on Tuesday night. Yet the upcoming speech provides an important and rare opportunity for the newly re-elected president. While the proximity to last month’s inaugural festivities will probably depress viewership, it is still reasonable to expect that more than 30 million Americans will tune in on February 12 to hear what their commander-in-chief has to say. The State of the Union represents one of few moments of collective popular engagement in American politics. It is all too easy for those in Washington who spend their days following the political debates to forget this critical fact.

With so many Americans tuning in to hear what he has to say, what should President Obama offer? A renewed focus on equitable economic growth and full employment as his top economic policy priority, above and beyond the deficit.

With the looming sequester deadlines and yet another narrowly-averted (for now) debt ceiling crisis, the entire economic policy debate in Washington seems to have shifted from reviving a sputtering economy to solving the deficit problem. Yes, the deficit is a problem. Yes, we need to get serious about fixing it. But there are three big reasons why the wholesale post-election shift in attention from a rapid return to full employment to the long-term deficit issue is dangerous, and the President would do well to use the SOTU to refocus attention on the issue of full economic recovery.

First, as Brookings’ Henry Aaron argues, the most serious problem facing the American economy today is the still-soft labor market. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is crippling today’s output and is likely to have reverberations for decades to come. Yes, the long-term structural deficit will cause problems if left unattended. But Washington is dangerously close to making prospective deficits “a damaging obsession,” as former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers warns, at the expense of seriously addressing the critical issues of unemployment, and equitable economic growth. Failure to successfully tackle these contemporary problems will make the long-term deficit problem far worse. The SOTU gives the President an opportunity to recast his economic policy priorities in this light, refocusing the debate on jobs and growth.

Second, the nature of the current Congress means that the President is unlikely to get anything resembling a “big deal” on the deficit. Republicans in Congress have proven time and time again that they are not willing to negotiate, especially when it comes to taxes. The extreme contemporary polarization of the Republican congressional delegation makes a good deficit deal incredibly unlikely. Focusing on deficit policy is unlikely to yield a salutary outcome, thus it is probably best to get something small done (i.e. avoid the sequester, which would choke off spending at precisely a time when the economy continues to need a boost) and simply move on. On Tuesday night, President Obama would do well to reframe budget politics in terms of incremental progress, and remind Americans of all the other important work that Washington has to do on economic policy.

Third, while public opinion suggests that the deficit is indeed an important priority for many, jobs and economic growth that benefits all Americans rank high as well. For the millions of viewers tuning in on Tuesday night to hear what the President has to say about his priorities, the message that will resonate most is one that speaks to their immediate economic concerns. Four out of five Americans have been impacted by job loss – either through their own or a family member’s or friend’s job loss. Consumer confidence is deteriorating, especially consumers’ labor market outlook. Many viewers are still struggling with the consequences of the Great Recession, and will be looking for their president to offer a governing vision that speaks to their kitchen-table worries. While the election may be over, politics is an eternal game. For now, the everyday concerns of broad swaths of the public align well with what ought to be the main concerns of policymakers. On Tuesday night, President Obama would do well to recognize and speak to this fact.

In the State of the Union, President Obama has an opportunity to harness the power inherent in one of America’s rare moments for collective democratic ritual, and to channel it toward refocusing his economic message for the coming term.  He is the only Democratic president to be twice elected with the popular vote – the only other president to achieve this feat of democracy was President Reagan. The State of the Union provides President Obama with an opportunity to use the power of the bully pulpit to shape America’s collective vision for its economic priorities. Let’s hope he does so.