The State of the Union, Six Months Later

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August 5, 2013; The Hill


Writing for The Hill, Justin Sink says that President Obama’s progressive second-term agenda, as outlined in his State of the Union address, “appear[s] to be gathering dust.” Sink finds “little movement” on many issues, “best epitomized by the battle over gun control.” He adds other elements of the President’s agenda that have fallen short of achieving public traction, much less legislative victories, such as raising the minimum wage to $9.00 or more an hour from the current level of $7.25, a proposal that hasn’t even had a hearing in the House of Representatives; the president’s call for the repeal of the sequester, an issue that seems to be making little headway; immigration reform, which, after much ballyhoo, he has gotten Republicans to say that they’ll address, but only in a piecemeal fashion; and even voting rights, which have not only not improved, but have had their progress reversed, what with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike a key part of the Voting Rights Act. At least the Supreme Court did away with the Defense of Marriage Act.

What about the nonprofit-specific content of the State of the Union? As we pointed out at the time, there wasn’t much that we could spot. We mentioned as nonprofit issues the same ones discussed above—minimum wage, sequestration cuts, immigration reform, and voting rights. However, the president skipped discussion of expanding AmeriCorps, or taking on the Citizens United decision, or any element of campaign finance reform, or defending and increasing U.S. foreign aid.

Hindsight is 20/20, so it is a little unfair to fault the president on issues that he didn’t address or issues that, in retrospect, didn’t turn out to be quite as he presented them. On the other hand, he is the president of the United States and took as part of the job the challenge of accountability that comes with it. So, in addition to the issues that both Sink and NPQ identified, a review of the speech six months later reveals other items that either suggest limited policy progress or evolution in directions that the president’s speech didn’t imply:

  • The SOTU included a call for making the tax code more progressive, but direction on this from the White House has been sparse. The leads on tax reform in Congress—outgoing Senator Max Baucus and Representative Dave Camp—have only just now initiated something like a listening tour, but specific directions from the duo have been minimal. One of the clearer statements from the President on tax reform has been his call for reducing the corporate tax rate, getting bipartisan support as well as an enthusiastic thumbs up from the business sector, but it is hardly a step toward a progressive tax structure.
  • He proposed new job creation efforts to shore up opportunities for people who weren’t seeing new prospects in the economy right then, such as a proposed “Fix-It-First” initiative aimed at jobs to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. We haven’t seen much in the way of these stimulus-like initiatives since the February address, even though it has been long clear that the President’s original stimulus program was way too small to jumpstart the economy out of the Great Recession and needed to be followed by another major federal financial commitment.
  • The president called for making college more affordable and suggested that colleges get federal assistance toward promoting affordability and value, but he didn’t propose any specific initiatives to deal with the “unsustainable debt” that many college graduates carry with them for years. With student debt now at the trillion-dollar level, the economy faces a debt problem much like the mortgage debt crisis, and public service and nonprofit employers find themselves hard-pressed to offer jobs that pay recent graduates well enough to help them absorb the debt they carry.
  • The president made a call to “put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods.” Not only has there not been a big community development initiative emerging from HUD on this score, since that speech, the city serving as the epicenter for vacant, dilapidated housing—Detroit—has declared bankruptcy and the White House, so far, has not offered a response commensurate with the crisis in the Motor City or the other major cities lined up to potentially follow Detroit’s fiscal predicament.
  • “My administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations,” the president said. “In the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” Transparency hasn’t been the hallmark of this administration on this score, as it took a renegade Booz Allen contractor with the National Security Agency to reveal the kind of work the government was doing to identify potential terrorists through huge metadata gathering efforts made “legal” by a rubber stamp system of FISA courts. “We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail,” the president said, but now Americans of both political parties are concerned with how much government may be doing in this regard as well.

The President’s nonprofit SOTU agenda, as difficult as it was to discern earlier this year, nonetheless needs a mobilized nonprofit sector to push, prod, and call out the White House and the feckless, do-nothing Congress. Otherwise, Justin Sink can write the same article six months from now and then six months after that about a progressive agenda gathering dust.—Rick Cohen

  • Michael Wyland

    1) Whether a tax code is “progressive” may be measured using either the tax rates or the revenues collected. In the case of the current proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate, reducing the rate is generally conceded to increase revenues collected. The sticking point is what will be done with the additional revenues – deficit reduction or additional spending, whether targeted as the President proposes or not?

    More generally, in terms of revenues collected, the US income tax code has rarely, if ever, been more “progressive” in terms of where the revenue comes from. Where taxes fall disproportionately on lower- and middle-class taxpayers is in other areas. At the Federal level, Medicare and Social Security taxes fall into this category, in no small part because both programs have a history of being sold as social insurance with limited insurance-like benefits. At the state and local levels, sales taxes, real estate taxes, and user fees are generally uniform, and state income taxes are often “flatter” that the federal income tax.

    If you ever want to stop a tax debate dead in its tracks, ask a few simple questions: How much should the federal government spend? Should this be expressed in terms of a hard dollar amount or in terms of GDP? At what rate should the federal government be expected to expand or contract? How do we prioritize revenue increases or spending cuts to keep the federal government within the expected growth/contraction trajectory?

    2) The President’s 2009 stimulus package was proposed with an emphasis on “shovel-ready” infrastructure development projects. By the time it was passed, about half the total was dedicated to supporting state government budgets in distress. It was difficult to assess how many jobs were created, in large part due to there being no rubric in place to measure what constitued a job and no evaluative reporting requirement in the law. The President ended up admitting that “shovel-ready” projects were hard to identify, and the effort was largely abandoned given the difficulty.