Message Obama Needs for State of the Union has Mass. Roots

| by William O Keefe

It’s the philosophy of John F. Kennedy: “Let’s not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”

Last week’s Massachusetts election has raised the already high stakes for this week’s State of the Union address. The GOP upset was just the latest in a series of signals that the American people have been sending to Washington. And during Wednesday’s speech, voters will be tuning in to determine if anyone in Washington is now listening.

Americans want to hear what President Obama has learned from his first year on the job and how that experience will inform the next three. They also want to hear whether the Congressional leadership understands what the American people have been communicating to the political elite. 

Obama’s election in 2008 was itself an indication that the public felt alienated from its government. Since then, the American people have been sending a consistent message of unhappiness to Washington. First there were the Tea Parties and then the elections in Virginia and New Jersey. While the message was not hard to understand, Washington either had a tin ear or chose to ignore it. Massachusetts voters solved that problem by taking the proverbial 2x4 and hitting the mule between the eyes.  Now, not surprisingly, some in the Beltway are taking notice. As Senator Bayh observed if Massachusetts didn’t serve as a wake up call, you’ve got no hope of waking up.

Public unhappiness has been building for some time. Spending has been out of control for much of this decade, and our financial problems were only made worse by last year’s bailouts and spending response to the financial crisis. The government -- for all of its regulations -- seems unable to solve problems rather than create them. The unemployed and those who have lost there homes are bearing a disproportionate burden for Washington’s folly.

It all boils down to the pursuit of prestige and power at the expense of the public interest. The arrogance in pushing a health care bill the public opposed simply became one political insult too many. This poor track record more than explains Congress’ current approval rating (an astonishingly low 23%) and the Republican victory in Massachusetts.

Where do we go from here? Careful examination of Capitol Hill’s missteps holds the key to the corrections needed to get Washington back in line with the public’s values and concern.

Take, for instance, the climate debate. Many members of the 111th Congress promised they’d implement effective action to generate long-lasting cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if elected. Yet, partisan bickering, special interest deal making, legislative excess, and scare tactics have crowded out this important objective -- leading to 1,000-plus page cap and trade bills in both the House and Senate. But, many of the reasons that the public rejected the proposed health care reform (driven by fear rather than facts, overly complex, veneer for political agenda, burden for average citizens, special interests handouts, and increased power for DC bureaucrats) are characteristics also inherent in the carbon trading proposals.

One of the nation’s leading economists, Yale’s William Nordhaus, predicts the emissions market at the heart of this legislation would lead to “pandemic cheating.” The burden of this financial abuse and manipulation would be borne not by Wall Street, but by Main Street -- the very consumers, workers, and families still reeling from the housing market fallout.

Now that Democrats no longer have the 60-vote majority necessary to sustain even the hope of passing a wrong headed cap and trade bill in 2010, Senators have the opportunity to start anew and hold a healthy debate over this and other alternative measures.

Any long term, effective climate policy must set a clear but realistic price on carbon in order to incentivize the private sector. A carbon tax is the best way to do that, and it doesn’t even have to be a large punishing one. Yet, no tax will be politically acceptable unless it is offset with a reduction in what economists call a more distorting tax. Reducing the payroll tax would put money immediately in the pockets of working Americans and send important messages not only about climate but also about the burden borne by Main Street.

A new approach to climate legislation, as well as to health care, would send a message to Americans that Congress gets it. On Wednesday night, that’s the message the President needs to get across. That new approach ironically enough has its roots in Massachusetts. It is the philosophy of John F. Kennedy: “Let’s not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”

William O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the George C. Marshall Institute, is president of Solutions Consulting Inc.

Photo: jurvetson