Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Congress and the State of the Union

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

January 31, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Having worked, in one way or another, on six State of the Union addresses, I know the effort and energy they require.  For months, it is the main focus of the president’s speechwriters.  For weeks, it occupies the White House senior staff.  The press buildup is intense.  The evening of the speech is dramatic as the president takes the center stage of American politics, making his congressional opposition look small in comparison. 

And yet there is little evidence that State of the Union addresses have a large or lasting influence on public opinion.  The speeches themselves, which are required to be a laundry list of policy, are seldom memorable.  And even a day after the speech, the political discussion moves on.  After all the buildup and hard work, the State of the Union address is usually a product with a very short expiration date.  

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address was not an exception.  Thought it had some nice grace notes and moving tributes, the policy in the speech was generally modest, recycled and generic.  This is typical of the diminished expectations of a president’s second term.  But it is also a contrast to President Obama’s ambitious requests for congressional action on gun control, the environment and other issues in last year’s State of the Union.  This year’s speech revealed a frustrated president with diminished public support.  And the main achievement of the speech was to give the president’s own party a rallying cry – “Give Americans a raise” – that they can take into a difficult midterm election. 

This is the general political reality – a weakened president and a polarized Congress.  But a State of the Union address also, on occasion, allows the emergence of creative ideas from the White House policy process.  President George W. Bush, for example, used these speeches to announce the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief and an initiative to provide help to the children of prisoners.  In this year’s State of the Union, there were two ideas that congressional Republicans need to seriously consider. 

First, there was a proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to help more childless, single workers.  EITC is an effective program, with decades of bipartisan support, which gives a refundable tax credit to poor people with a job, offsetting their Social Security taxes and providing an incentive for work.  Making entry-level jobs attractive and rewarding – particularly in an economy with so many discouraged people who have left the workforce entirely – should get a serious look from Congress.

Second, President Obama proposed the creation of “starter” retirement savings accounts for people who don’t currently get them through their work.  This would encourage lower and middle-income workers to purchase Treasury bonds that could later be transferred to more traditional retirement plans.  It is a modest proposal, but it addresses a large problem: the huge gap in assets, savings and personal wealth between minorities and other Americans.  

Republicans in Congress are not in a mood to give President Obama legislative victories before the midterms.  But passing these measures to reward work and encourage asset building would have no serious political implications, involve no ideological concessions, and begin to incrementally address important problems. There needs to be some room in our politics for creative policy ideas – wherever they come from.      

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”