When watching a basketball game, though your eye is drawn toward the player with the ball, it’s good to watch how the play’s developing away from the ball—trying to see how players without the ball are moving–looking not just where the play is, but where it will be a few passes ahead.
That’s also the best way to listen to the State of the Union speech tomorrow night. I’m very glad the President will focus on the economy and opportunity for the middle class, and I’m sure we’ll hear lots of good ideas in the areas of manufacturing, infrastructure, clean energy, and education (MICE??). Those are certainly all areas where deeper investments would improve the economic opportunities of folks who haven’t seen nearly enough of the economy’s growth over the last few decades.
The question is, how do we get from Tuesday night’s rhetoric to Wednesday morning’s plans for actually implementing such ideas? In that regard, here are some “away-from-the-ball” issues that bear watching:
–NDD: It stands for non-defense discretionary and it’s a part of the budget that supports every one of those areas the President will discuss tomorrow night. Yet it is has already been cut to the point where, as a share of the economy, it will fall to its lowest level since the early 1960s. Vital programs in the NDD part of the budget thus look to already be underfunded relative to future needs.
–So, an important thing to listen for tomorrow is some sort of repudiation of this budget path. And that means more revenues, more proposed cuts to other parts of the budget (basically, entitlements or defense), or most likely, some combination. Theoretically, it could also mean willingness to tolerate higher budget deficits right now, but we’re pretty unlikely to hear anything like that tomorrow night, i.e., the President will propose to pay for any new spending.
–But won’t Republicans just block any investments in MICE? Surely they will if the President’s ideas involve more tax revenues, which, as just noted, have got to be part of the solution. That said, historically R’s have been willing to invest in infrastructure and education. After all, these are public goods widely valued by the business community as critical inputs to production. And some of the President’s manufacturing agenda involves tax breaks for domestic production or bringing offshored jobs back here. So perhaps there’s some wiggle room there but that most likely depends on the extent to which House leader John Boehner is willing to allow votes that pass with majority D’s.
Rhetoric, even excellent rhetoric, will not recreate the long-missing economic tissue that connects growth to middle-class prosperity. For that we need real, substantive investments in precisely the areas on which the President will hold forth tomorrow night. Looking away from the ball means looking for those investments—and given the way the game is being played right now, they’re awfully hard to see.