Revitalizing the American Economy: A Reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union Address

In a State of the Union address devoted almost entirely to domestic matters, President Obama offered a wide-ranging program for revitalizing the American economy and retaining U.S. global economic leadership. His agenda rested on five pillars: spurring innovation, reforming education, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, removing barriers to business success, and regaining fiscal balance.

As White House aides had predicted, the speech was lighter on programmatic specifics than were many prior State of the Union speeches. Instead, the president sought to explain what has changed in the economy over the past generation and what we must do to respond. In a pointed and poignant narrative, he invoked “proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game.” And, he continued,

“They’re right. The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work, and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection. Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.”

In short, President Obama argued, the main drivers of economic change are technology and globalization and (he implied) not trade or corporate misconduct. This is the narrative favored by mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives, and also by corporate leaders, but not by populists of either the left or the right. It is a narrative, not of anger and resentment, but of optimism and hope. 

After previous statements some interpreted as rejecting American exceptionalism, the president found his own way to invoke it. We are, he said, “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea—the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answers questions like ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?” We can’t predict the future of the economy, the president said, and certainly not the next game-changing invention. But “what we can do—what America does better than anyone—is to spark the creativity and imagination of our people.” It is because of our free economy and our democratic political system, he concluded, that “there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth.”

President Obama has stated his case and staked his ground. Now he faces the challenge of moving from vision to specifics, and of persuading a profoundly skeptical new Congress that growth will take more than spending cuts, that government is not a drag on the economy, but rather a vital partner in the task of spurring growth and creating jobs.