3 Things Obama Missed During the State of the Union
I'm happy about a lot of things about the State of the Union address last night. Jodie Foster did not jump onstage and announce she was coming out of the closet. Kanye West did not interrupt the President's speech and take credit for killing Bin Laden. No shoes were thrown. Nothing was lip-synced.
Seriously, though, President Obama is an accomplished communicator, and I like him. In the State of the Union last night, he was strongest when he outlined several huge (albeit unlikely) proposals. He spoke of the need to reform immigration and have better laws over who can own guns. He wants to raise the minimum wage, provide health care for all, and create better schools. I'm pretty sure he proposed ending male pattern baldness in my lifetime, too. (At least, I hope he did.) "The greatest nation on earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to another," he said.
These are all great ideas. No one can argue his passion.
But when President Obama also spoke--at length--about the economy and creating jobs, and the government's role in both, his speech was not as strong--particularly if you're a business owner like you and me. (Thankfully, it was not as bad as Bill Pullman's Independence Day speech. "We will not go quietly into the night"? Really?) Here's what President Obama missed in the State of the Union:
1. He keeps saying the government should play a significant role in the economy.
President Obama wants to spend more on infrastructure. He also wants to make significant investments in energy, technology, and education. He wants to create more so-called manufacturing innovation institutes and offer incentives to employers who manufacture here in the United States. He wants to give tax benefits to those who hire more employees or invest in small businesses. It's all good. If you have the money. But if you read a newspaper once in a while, you know the country doesn't have the money right now. The U.S. already has massive debts.
Plus, I've heard this speech before. Oh, right, it was President Obama's State of the Union address in 2009. Back then, he promised millions of new jobs and a revived economy once his $800 billion stimulus program spent on (you guessed it) infrastructure, energy, technology, and education took effect. And he talked up extended short-term tax cuts and other goodies like tax credits for businesses that hire more people. The President subsequently extended the reach of the Small Business Administration and gave its head a Cabinet position. He made more federal loan guarantees available for small businesses. And the Fed joined the party with easy money and lots of liquidity. But the result? Anemic growth. In fact, the economy is projected to grow less than 2 percent this year, and unemployment has stayed stubbornly at 8 percent.
Frankly, the economy is growing too slowly because owners like me are afraid to invest and hire. I don't know what else the government plans to do to "help" out. Please, just protect owners from enemies and keep cities safe and the legal system fair. If possible, limit exposure to Lady Gaga, too. Make sure commerce can be done over the roads, rails, and skies. And balance your own books. Other than that, please let me worry about expanding my own company--and the economy will grow.
What had I hoped to hear? "As a government, we have done enough to rescue our financial system and set it on the right path. Now it's up to the private sector. Going forward and to create a more stable economy, I'm going to get the government's books in order and leave you to do the same. You have my word on that."
2. He didn't convince me he's going to get the country's debt under control.
Speaking of balancing the country's books, President Obama was not convincing on the national debt. At last count, it was approximately $16 trillion, which is now officially more than America's gross domestic product, and almost as much as Oprah earned last year alone. And although the Congressional Budget Office projects lower deficits over the coming years (mainly because of arguable assumptions about estimated growth and tax receipts), the national debt is projected to substantially climb over the next two decades at its current pace. This is a big concern for my business. If the national debt continues to grow as forecast, many economists believe that the country will likely suffer from higher inflation, interest rates, an unstable dollar, and emergency spending cuts and potential tax increases that will create more uncertainty than ever before.
But what's President Obama going to do to get this debt under control? He continues to say he will do something about the cost of Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements that currently make up about 40 percent of our annual spending, and he's "open to all ideas." But then I hear about more spending programs, taxing the wealthy, and blaming the opposition in Congress.
What did I hope to hear? "I am going to agree on a ratio of spending cuts and tax revenue with Congress that will reduce the national debt to at least 50 percent of GDP within the next seven years. You have my word on that."
3. He's not leading toward a compromise with his opposition in Congress.
Any competent negotiator knows that the definition of a successful deal is when both sides walk away feeling like winners. But the President doesn't seem to have this leadership skill so far. He seems unable to forge a working government with his opposition. Is that his fault? No. But it is his responsibility. He has to compromise and lead the way to compromise. I am tired of hearing about long-term deficit and tax reform and complaints about Congress. It's been four years. Show me. I expect there to be compromises, because that's what I do every day of my business life. I expect the President to negotiate, be flexible, give a little, take a little. I expect him to govern.
What did I hope to hear? "Mr. Boehner, our negotiations have been difficult. But I promise we will together get a tax reform and deficit deal done this year. You have my word on this."
Those were the three things I hoped to hear last night. But I didn't. Was it a good speech? Sure. But I still prefer when Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson) delivered "The path of the righteous man" speech in Pulp Fiction. Now, that was awesome.
GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.
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