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

The Troubled State of the Union

Amy E. Black


February 22, 2013

By Amy E. Black

When President Obama appeared before a joint session of Congress last week to deliver his 4th State of the Union address, he had the attention of the nation’s lawmakers, domestic and international journalists, and an estimated television audience of 33.5 million. The speech offered the perfect opportunity for the president to reach across bitter partisan divides and encourage unity. 

The president could have used the limelight to remind the American people of their shared values, promote bipartisan cooperation and chart a new path forward in these troubled times. Instead, Obama followed the path that has become all too common in Washington: promising more than he can deliver and setting up his political opponents to take the blame.

Obama prefaced his call for grand new initiatives with this assurance: “Tonight, I’ll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago…nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime.”

The president then proceeded to unveil a litany of new proposals, promising, among other things, to provide preschool for lower income families, reach energy independence, increase research and development, improve infrastructure and help eliminate extreme poverty worldwide. How is it possible to pursue so many new initiatives—while suggesting few new sources of revenue—and not add even a dime to the deficit?

Fuzzy math. Creative accounting. Whatever the terminology, it too often describes business as usual in Washington.

In April 2011, Congressional leaders briefly ended their stalemate and passed a landmark $37.8 billion bipartisan budget reduction package. In an analysis of the results two years later, however, David Fahrenthold reported in the Washington Post that “many of their ‘cuts’ cut nothing at all.” The budget agreement included gimmicks such as “saving” almost $6 billion because the Census Bureau wouldn’t be conducting a census in 2011—and had never planned to—and factored in $6.2 billion in so-called cuts that the Department of Defense had already determined it wasn’t going to spend. Republican and Democratic staff members who worked on the deal described the process to the Post as a mix of real budget cuts and “others that looked huge on paper but would turn out small in real life.”

When elected officials aren’t promising more than they can deliver, they are busy casting blame. For too many years, progress in Washington has been stymied by party leaders who seem to place more value on scoring political points than on seeking genuine solutions to the growing list of problems that affect the nation. As control of Congress has see-sawed back and forth between the two major parties, House and Senate leaders have all too often dug in their heels and refused to work across the aisle, reserving all the credit for themselves and assigning all the blame to the opposing party. Such practice is a recipe for disaster. 

Democrats and Republicans in Washington need to move beyond the gamesmanship and bickering and get back to the people’s business. The president and party leaders in both the House and Senate need to reverse course. We can’t expect either party to solve the budget crisis, reform entitlement programs or restore the economy on its own. Such complicated, long-term problems demand bipartisan leadership, honest accounting and willingness to sacrifice.

The American people also have a role to play. 

First, we need to change our expectations. We shouldn’t expect quick fixes nor should we naively accept political speak that makes easy promises. Instead, voters should demand that politicians explain their proposals, what they will cost and how they will pay for them. Hold them accountable for their words.

Second, we need to be willing to accept shared sacrifice. The old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is as true in politics as in other areas of life. For far too long, americans have expected more from their government than it can deliver and complained when it falls short. It is past time for us to demonstrate that we are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to address long-term problems and that we will reward elected officials who make the hard-but-necessary decisions needed in these troubled times.

We saw it in the 2011 budget deal. We saw it again in the long list of promises in the 2013 State of the Union. Both Republicans and Democrats have been complicit in making promises they cannot keep and setting up their opponents to take the blame. The American people deserve better from their elected officials, and it is well time they demand it.

—Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason (2012).

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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.”