Friday, February 13, 2015

The State of the Union Address, Mixed on Jobs and Thus an Improvement Over ’14, Moves Pressure to Republicans

Last month had President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, with only one from him to come.  It drew comments ranging from “meaningless” (Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post), to “combative” (the New York Times Editorial Board) and “replete with a certain swagger” (Eugene Robinson, also from the Post, on to his “best yet” for its relative lack of citizen vignettes (Alexandra Petri, likewise). 

I was glad to see the emphasis Obama put not only on the American economy, but on jobs in particular.  While some of his claims were narrowly selective, such as that “over the past five years, our businesses (emphasis mine) have created more than 11 million new jobs” when either including other positions lost or changing the time to four or six years would make it much less favorable-looking, politicians will be politicians, and of more concern was what he said about the future.

The president’s stated wishes were a mixture of ideas, some good for employment and some bad.  On the down side, we heard yet again, though thankfully not in a belabored way, about the need for a higher minimum wage, defended by the difficulty to “support a family on less than $15,000 a year.”  To name just one objection, when we have a permanent jobs crisis, we do not have the luxury of legally mandating that all positions pay enough to fully provide for multiple people. 

Other of Obama’s proposals would also, as Rubin wrote, “put more burdens on employers.”  Two were federally required paid sick leave and paid maternity leave.  He also called for a “law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work,” presumably stronger or more results-based than the one designed to serve that exact purpose that has already been on the books for some 51 years.  While it is true, as he said, that “nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages,” nothing gives families a more sudden and severe financial setback than being put out of work, possibly due to one’s employer being simply unable to pay higher mandated costs.

The other points in the speech, though, were favorable to jobs.  I counted six, which were four or five more than he had a year before. 

First, he said we have emerged from the recession.  Though self-serving, that statement still has a no-excuses flavor which might stifle contrary, action-inhibiting words from other Democrats.  Second, he mentioned the need to pay people properly for overtime.  Abuse of statuses such as “manager” and “contractor” have too often facilitated employers circumventing such laws, which, even in a job-scarce environment, should not be allowed to deteriorate.  Third, his requested strong connections between community colleges and the companies most suitable for hiring their graduates are not only critically necessary but in need of ongoing, proactive maintenance.  Fourth, although vaguely presented, his idea of rewarding companies investing in the United States should affect tax laws much more than it does.  Fifth, his call at the end of the speech, “if you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree,” makes it clear that responsibility for refusals to discuss or negotiate falls, barring the absurd idea that none of his proposals could under any circumstances be acceptable, squarely on Republicans.

Obama’s sixth pro-jobs view was perhaps the first one to take substantive form thereafter.  He mentioned the need for a large infrastructure initiative, which became a $478 billion item in the budget he sent to Congress earlier this month.  He said on February 1 that he thought Republicans were in favor of extensive infrastructure work, and that he and they should negotiate not the general idea, but how it should be financed.  He was right, as people of both parties can see that American bridges, ports, highways, airports, sewer systems and so on need repair, upgrading, and replacement, which must happen somehow.  If congressional Republicans refused to even debate how these things could be done, that would mean that they were going beyond their beliefs and would be, for some other reason, simply acting in bad faith.

One more thing became distinct last month.  Obama being a Democrat, and in many ways a liberal, does not mean he consistently wants a larger government.  One reason why the 11 million new business jobs he cited was not as good as it sounds was that, during that time of his presidency, government positions had decreased 500,000.  Not increased less than expected, not increased less than the pattern of the past few years, not “cut” in the old Washington sense of asking for two million but only getting 1,500,000 – but actually down overall.  He said in the speech that his proposed tax increases on the wealthiest Americans would not go for more workers in Washington, but would ease burdens on the middle class.  So, taking those two things together, it was completely unfitting for House Speaker John Boehner to rally Republicans by saying, as he did, that “making government bigger isn't going to help the middle class.”     

Overall, the 2015 State of the Union Address was true to type.  It was self-congratulatory, filled with wishful thinking, and too vague in spots for even its general purpose.  I stay with what I wrote a year ago, that there will be no fundamental American employment progress under this administration.  However, as our president’s views on jobs have improved, the reason for that is shifting.  Barring tragedy, Barack Obama will be President of the United States for almost two more years, with almost no chance that he will be replaced by a Republican before January 20, 2017 – at the soonest.  It is now up to people of that party to decide whether to negotiate and implement what they as well as Democrats, know we need, or to throw out babies such as the infrastructure initiative with the bathwater of further burdens on employers in the name of unconnected ideology.  

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