Barack Obama campaigned for president under the banner of “Yes we can.” The message from his address to Congress Tuesday night, Feb. 24 was “Now we must.”
The president is right when he says that the nation must tackle four broad areas simultaneously: the economy, health care, energy and education. For decades, each has been approached piecemeal, as if, to put the economy in anatomical terms, the leg bone wasn’t connected to the ankle bone. That approach has failed.
Is everything in the agenda Obama laid out doable? No, at least not as quickly as called for. But each of the areas he targeted is integral to a healthy, growing economy, one capable of sustaining a lifestyle younger Americans fear they may not get to enjoy.
The president’s speech is being compared to addresses given early in their presidencies by Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and the comparisons, while not perfect, are apt. Obama’s speech was a sober analysis of the grave situation the nation is in, coupled with the confidence that, with will, teamwork and sacrifice, those problems can be surmounted.
Reforming a costly and failing health care system won’t be easy. Turning around the nation’s failing schools won’t be quick. Nor will doubling the amount of energy the United States gets from alternative sources in just three years. All three may be possible, but they will require an enormous commitment, a fast path through regulatory mazes, bipartisan cooperation and money.
Ultimately, if the nation is to meet Obama’s fourth goal, halving the deficit by the end of his first term, it will require not just a rebounding economy but also tax increases. The president plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts that benefited the truly wealthy, but he pledged not to increase taxes one dime on families earning less than $250,000. That promise can’t be kept. Taxing the truly rich just a wee bit more won’t raise enough money to do all the things government must do.
Protecting the poor and near-poor from higher taxes is necessary, but sooner, rather than later, taxes will have to go up. The tradeoff should include a health care system that covers everyone for less than Americans now spend and an education system that allows young people to compete and prevail in the global marketplace.
Some Republicans, notably Sen. Judd Gregg, who hopes to work with Obama to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, recognize that spending cuts alone won’t be enough. Revenue will have to be raised. But, judging from the response of their party’s spokesman for the evening, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, most Republicans are still under the influence of tax cut Kool-Aid.
Jindal wandered around in a distant Republican past in his response, pushing buttons that no longer connect to anything. Nothing summed that up better than his reprise of Sen. John McCain, who is given to belittling earmarks he doesn’t understand. Jindal complained of wasteful spending that includes “$140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring’.” But monitoring volcanoes, of course, is something government should do. The United States has more than a score of active volcanoes with hundreds of thousands of people living under them. What possible good could come of not monitoring them?
In his conclusion, Obama called on Americans to “come together and lift this nation from the depth of this crisis.” It remains to be seen whether most Republicans are willing to lend a hand.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial originally appeared on Feb. 26 in the Concord Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. It was reprinted here with permission from The Associated Press. The views represented in this editorial are not necessarily those of the South Florida Times.