President Obama laid out a mixture of old ideas and ambitious new goals in his third State of the Union speech Tuesday night, challenging the nation to a new era of competitiveness, calling for investing more in education and green technology, but also proposing a five-year freeze on all discretionary spending as he seeks to balance the urgent need for deficit reduction with the even more urgent need for economic reignition.
All the proposals are of national interest, but the delicate matter of cutting the nation's burgeoning deficit while shepherding our still fragile economy into health is where the fireworks will come over the coming weeks and months. The president is in a good political place to lead that discussion.
In at least a couple of ways, his proposal is more realistic than the plan House Republicans just announced. They want to ratchet domestic spending back to pre-Obama levels, and while the idea sounds good on the surface (so does lowering it to pre-Bush levels, when we actually had a budget surplus), there are serious obstacles. For one thing, the Bush-era spending levels occurred before the nation endured its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, a collapse that threatened our entire economic infrastructure and whose influence is still felt in businesses and households across the country.
To be sure, the economy is improving, but while unemployment has declined slightly, for example, it remains at the economically disruptive level of 9.4 percent. Increased federal spending is not only justified, but necessary in such times. We are not out of the woods, yet.
To some extent, of course, both sides are playing to the public -- looking for a political edge. That could work to the public's advantage if it results in a serious effort to control spending in a way that makes economic sense. Indeed, Obama seems well placed between the unworkable fomentations of the Republican right and the see-no-evil incantations of the Democratic left. If something is going to be done to deal with the federal deficit -- and something must be -- some compromising will have to be on the agenda.
Could that happen? It hasn't in the past two years, when Republicans mainly sought to obstruct Obama, and Democrats, with strong majorities in both the House and Senate, were able to proceed without needing to compromise. Still the possibility exists. For whatever it was worth, Democrats and Republicans were mixed on the House floor for Tuesday night's speech instead of segregating themselves.
What is more, the issues are too serious for either party to insist on its own way. And with the country demanding the return of civility to our public life, it is possible that Congress and the president will find their way toward political compromises that leave the country in better shape than it is today.
Obama opened his speech by referring to the empty seat of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the need for a new era of cooperation. It won't happen on its own. Congress will have to make a point of it, and Americans will have to insist. It's time to get past the shouting from the political fringes and get down to work.