Nearly seven years after the onset of the Big Recession, the state of the union is improving on most fronts. The state of the federal government? Not so much.
The two are not the same and should not be confused.
Despite a sluggish recovery, the economy is doing far better than it was when President Obama became chief executive five years ago. Housing is in recovery, jobs are (somewhat) easier to find and consumer confidence has rebounded. We’re not out of the woods, but we’ve come a long way.
That is due in no small measure to the stimulus program that the president proposed and Congress enacted in 2009, which worked the way it was supposed to by pumping jobs and money into a flat economy. But above all, it is a testament to the vitality of the public sector and the business community, which made the necessary adjustments to ensure they could weather the storm.
But it’s doubtful that any such “big ticket” item could win approval these days. President Obama and Congress remain at loggerheads on most of the important issues of our time, and there is little hope of a breakthrough, at least until the next election.
The president’s agenda of diminished ambitions and his vow to take unilateral action where he can reflect the state of gridlock in the nation’s capital will only get him so far. A federal government without an active, energized Congress is not an option in our system of government.
Obama’s supporters blame Republicans in Congress for the futility inside the Beltway. They’re partly right. If half the energy spent on investigating Benghazi had gone into working with the president to improve the Affordable Care Act, the nation would be better off.
But Obama can’t get off the hook entirely. The president that the nation saw on Tuesday night was eloquent, passionate on behalf of his program and occasionally humorous, as when he compared shameful conditions for women in some workplaces to an episode of “Mad Men.”
But when it comes to working with a recalcitrant Congress and the hard work of legislative engineering, the magic apparently vanishes. Even members of his own party have complained about his performance when it comes to dealing with Congress.
The result is a limited vision that fails to fix fundamental problems requiring urgent attention from both lawmakers and the president. Thus, there was no mention in Obama’s speech of the “grand bargain” – a deal to raise taxes and cut entitlement spending, a glaring and shameful omission.
Such a deal would do more than anything to ensure a robust recovery. Its absence from the presidential agenda is a sign that anything so difficult, no matter how much it would do to improve the country, is beyond the political ability of the current crop of leaders in Washington.
The only reason for optimism on the legislative front this year is the apparent willingness of the Republican-led House to reconsider immigration reform – and only because GOP leaders know the party cannot keep giving the back of its hand to the growing Latino community.
Pessimists say it will never happen, but Hispanic leaders – and those in the business community, too – must continue to press legislators and the president to get it done. The state of the union will remain dysfunctional as long as 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country remain in the shadows.