Focus on finding common ground
President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday seemed alternately focused on obtainable goals given current political realities - a House controlled by staunch fiscal conservatives - and on setting the stage for the 2014 election when Democrats will seek to regain control of that chamber.
Strikingly absent was any urgency about the $1 trillion in sequestration budget cuts set to hit March 1 if Democrats and Republicans don't reach an alternative deficit deal. Yes, President Obama warned these "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize … military readiness" and "devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research," slowing the economic recovery. But he offered no bold proposals to avoid this pending calamity.
President Obama's focus was on longer term efforts to reduce deficit spending, which is the better strategy, but ignores the reality of the imminent mandated cuts, part of a 2011 debt ceiling deal he signed into law.
On the positive side, his talking points on long-term strategies to get deficits under control did offer opportunities for bipartisan agreement. He called for Medicare reform to find savings on the scale outlined in the Simpson-Bowles commission report. And President Obama said he is ready to work towards overhauling the tax code to simplify it and close loopholes.
Whether Republicans and the president can agree on the nature and size of entitlement reform is another question, but the opening is there. And while Republicans see tax reform differently - seeking lower tax rates in return for eliminating deductions and loopholes - the fact that both sides are talking reform could provide a path to compromise.
More promising is the chance for immigration reform. After a tough election in which they lost the Latino vote by a landslide, many Republicans are ready to cut a deal. President Obama said nothing that would block it.
The White House may also be able to carve off enough Republican support in the House to boost spending for repairing and upgrading the nation's infrastructure and investing in research and development. "I've seen you all at the ribbon cuttings," he joked. But a deficit deal would likely have to come first.
Sound as they may be, other proposals from the president - 15 "manufacturing hubs," cap-and-trade to curb greenhouse gases, universal early childhood education, and an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 - are not likely to happen with this Congress. They will have to await the outcome of another election.