Obama: We Need 'Smarter Government'

Charles Dharapak/AP

President Obama called for smarter government during his State of the Union address Tuesday night in a speech that focused on creating more jobs and strengthening the economy without adding to the country’s deficit.

Early in his one-hour speech, Obama addressed the fiscal battles that have dominated his time in office, calling for an end to political brinkmanship to pass a budget and reduce the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. “Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America," he said. "The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.” 

Obama outlined an ambitious -- and mostly domestic -- policy agenda for his second term, including new proposals in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, housing and education that he claimed are “fully” paid for and in keeping with the framework both parties agreed to in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“Let me repeat -- nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” Obama said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

Obama used immigration reform as an example of where government could be smarter and more efficient. “Real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy,” he said.

Also early on in his speech, Obama mentioned the looming automatic spending cuts scheduled to hit the government starting on March 1. “These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness,” Obama said. “They’d devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs.” While he acknowledged that pretty much everyone in Washington thinks sequestration is a “really bad idea,” he did not offer any specifics on avoiding it.

As the president delivered his address, the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent out emails “fact-checking” Obama’s speech and disputing his claims, on issues including spending and sequestration. “The Obama economy is marked by persistently high unemployment, stagnant growth and excessive spending that is holding back hiring,” according to one infographic, which listed statistics showing greater unemployment, decreasing median home prices, and a growing national debt over Obama’s first term.

The GOP’s official rebuttal to the president’s speech, delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, focused squarely on the role of government, criticizing the president’s spending policies and arguing that citizens are better off with less, not more government. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them. And more government isn’t going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It’s going to create uncertainty.”

But Rubio, the son of middle-class Cuban immigrants, also used his personal story to praise some federal programs that he and his family have benefited from. “I believe in federal financial aid,” Rubio said. “I couldn’t have gone to college without it. But it’s not just about spending more money on these programs; it’s also about strengthening and modernizing them.” The Floridian also singled out Medicare as “especially important” to him. “It provided my father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity. And it pays for the care my mother receives now,” he said. “I would never support any changes to Medicare that would hurt seniors like my mother. But anyone who is in favor of leaving Medicare exactly the way it is right now, is in favor of bankrupting it.”

Obama tried to separate government from politics in his speech. “The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” the president said. “They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”

While Obama devoted a fair amount of air time to spending, deficit reduction and the role of government, job creation was his central focus. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”

Some of the new proposals Obama called for Tuesday night included:

  • A federal minimum wage increase to $9 an hour
  • Expansion of private-public partnerships to create additional “manufacturing hubs” to offer high-tech jobs in areas across the country suffering economically
  • Incentives for high schools to develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math
  • Comprehensive immigration reform
  • Stronger gun control
  • A “fix-it-first” program to put people to work on the most urgent infrastructure repairs across the country.
The president also singled out the “courage and sacrifice” of military personnel, diplomats and intelligence officers during his speech. The biggest news on the defense front, reported before Obama’s speech, was the planned dramatic drawdown in Afghanistan over the next year. “Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan,” Obama said. “This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Obama also mentioned an executive order he signed earlier on Tuesday aimed at strengthening cybersecurity by increasing information sharing and establishing privacy standards.

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