The State of the Union breakdown

Jan 24, 2012

Join Robert Kaiser as he discusses President Obama's State of the Union address. What did he focus on? What did and didn't you like? Discuss it all here.

This chat will begin as soon as the State of the Union ends. Join in!

Hello and welcome to another State of the Union chat. I've been doing these for more years that I will try to remember. I am hoping for good questions and comments from the wonderful readers of So fire away. I'll be here for an hour or so.

Mr. Kaiser - it's so nice to have you back on a chat! will you be hosting chats during general election debates? I sure hope so. I thought the President was trying to move to the center on some issues tonight (i.e. offshore drilling, and without using the term, fracking). your thoughts? And how despairing are you of the consequences of Citizens United ruling??

It is great to be here with you! Thanks. I absolutely agree with you. "Common sense" was a by-word tonight, wasn't it. Obama is obviously hoping that a Republican Party that has moved to the right will leave the center to him. And he was playing to the center tonight again and again.

What did the president mean when he said that if colleges can't keep their costs down, they will get less money from the government? Do you think he means to cut eligibility for federally subsidized loan programs based on tuition increases? They couldn't even get that through when the trigger was outrageously high default rates.

A good question to which I do not  know the answer. A number of the specific program ideas in the speech will have to be spelled out. I suspect that will start happening tomorrow. I'm intrigued by this one, but have no more information than you do.

So can we expect mortgage rates to stay low? Or will they be raised tomorrow morning?

I love questions like this. What makes this reader think the president influences mortgage rates? It's the Federal Reserve that has some influence over them, and the Fed has said again and again that it will keep mortgage rates low indefinitely.

When we elect a President that has no foreign affairs experience, no political experience, no business experience,and no job experience, why do we care what he thinks?

Because he is our president! Your description is a little harsh too, but I get where you're coming from.

Foreign wages (or what foreign talent is willing to work for) are so much lower than American minimum wage that, even with higher taxes, it makes sense for business (small and large) to outsource work. Why would you penalize this behavior and reward giving jobs to Americans? Why not just change or abolish the minimum wage?

So that Americans can all work for Chinese wages? How well do you think that would work?

Is it a bad thing for a wealthy family to pay only the income taxes legally required?

Is it bad to obey the law? I don't think so. Is it dumb to have laws that allow Mitt Romney to pay 13.9% when a high school principal is paying 39% ? Might those laws need a second look?

How much taxes exactly did the president propose?

He didn't make a concrete proposal.

I counted 10 uses of the word manufacturing - and they were not shout-outs to FoxConn. Is this for real? Does BHO really think we can expect in-shoring?

Good question. I think we've seen quite a lot of evidence that he does believe it. He loves examples like Master Lock, which he cited tonight. And there have been a number of examples of this in the last couple of years. Not remotely enough to make a big dent in our unemployment, though.

Mr. Kaiser, thanks for taking questions tonight. It seemed like the president took on Mitt Romney in several points in the speech. Do they think that, Newt's surge notwithstanding, Romney will ultimately be the opponent?

It has become a ritual for me to respond to questions like this with an observation that my wife and daughters, at least, KNOW to be true: Attempts by this observer to see the future are futile!  I just can't do it. I'm sorry. I'd say as an observer and analyst that both men still have a chance of winning the nomination tonight. How's that for a risky prediction?

We have heard all the GOP contenders describe what a monster the President is. Where did we see the horns or the hammer and sickle in this speech?

Thanks for this, which gives me a chance to plug a wonderful piece that ran last Sunday in The Post by Eli Saslow, one of our most talented young writers. This is a piece about real America, a country of earnest citizens, most--literally most--of whom pay relatively little attention to politics.  Politicians, and Washington pundits too, live in a strange world of their own. There are more people like those in Eli's article who barely pay attention to the shenanigans in Washington.

Which is a way to address your question. I think the Republicans have taken a huge risk by creating the moster caricature of Obama that you describe, because, like you, most apolitical citizens looking at Obama give a speech like this one don't see a monster. In fact they see a nice-looking, engaging human being who enjoys about a 60 percent personal (as opposed to political) favorable rating in the polls. This caricature can backfire in an election campaign I think.


Here is the Eli Saslow piece Robert is referring to: For a jobless, struggling South Carolina man, reality isn’t a political debate

Hello, Nice to have you here. We heard a lot of policies appealing to the center moderates and at least something for everyone, but what is the likelihood the ideas will be put into action.

Timing is everything, as the old joke says. Put into action when? This year? Not many. Eventually? Hard to say. We saw I think a continuation of the re-election campaign that Obama began in December in Osawatomie, Kansas, with a very interesting speech that my producer Haley Crum is going to give you a link to here. Obama wrote that speech himself, and tonight's borrowed many words and ideas from it. The message is, let's buckle down and do the obvious, common-sense things that need to be done to revive our spirit and our sense of being Americans who are "all in it together." We'll hear this again and again for the next 10 months, and yes, it is meant to appeal to moderates and centrists, no matter what actually gets implemented from the menu Obama is offering.

It's ironic to me that we are willing to run up deficits to go to war, yet wringing our hands over the deficit, much of which can be attributed to the two wars we've been waging. Yet these vets come home, traumatized and seriously injured, and no one really speaks to the issue of taking care of them, which is a cause I'm willing to run up a deficit for - I was glad to see the President raise the issue of taking care of our vets.

Thanks for posting.

What do you think the backlash of Obama's proposed policy to make kids stay in school until they're 18 or graduate will be? Is that likely to be received well?

That was one of the most interesting ideas in the speech, wasn't it? Can it be done--constitutiionally, I mean? How would a school district enforce it? What would be done to the kids who refused to cooperate? I am skeptical that we'll ever see such a "rule" implemented.

You can read the full text of Obama's Osawatomie speech here.

He sounded more forceful to me than in his other SOTU addresses. About what he said about making a team of special prosecutors to go after financial malfeasance, do you think he meant going after people who caused the 2008 crises or only those who do wrong going forward?

I agree.  I think he found a new voice for his big jobs speech to Congress last September, I think it was, and we heard it again tonight, and it is markedly more forceful than previous big speeches he has given.

That financial crimes unit smacked of closing the barn door a little late, didn't it? I thought he was implying that it would look back at 2008. Why hasn't his Justice Dept been tougher on this stuff already?

Geez! Get your head out of the funny papers. Obama's team has done fabulously in foreign policy! Where have you been? No business experience? Is that enviable in light of the last administration? You really liked the likes of Enron? Really? No job experience? No, he's not a rocket surgeon. I'll give you that. Holy Cow!

Thanks for posting. I welcome arguments of this kind!

I notice that you are answering a lot of these questions with more questions... thoughts?

The older I get, the more question marks appear in my  writing and in my mind. The wisdom of age? Or just slipping?

I'm watching the Republican response, and it seems like they want a lot of the same things Obama was saying the government needs to address/fix. So why can't Capitol Hill get anything done?

Ahh, now there's a good question! It seems to me that the group in the driver's seat in Washington just now is the House Republican caucus, dominated by the new Tea Party members. If they won't agree to take a different tack than they took last year, realistically, nothing is going to change in Washington, regardless of what the Pooh-Bahs say in these big speeches.

It seems very fashionable to say reform the tax code by "getting rid of loopholes and lowering marginal tax rates" in either the income tax code or corporate tax code. But, uh, are the lobbyists that got members of Congress to pass those loopholes originally just going to disappear? Are politicians not going to need money raised from businesses that like those deductions and exemptions? It just seems so naive!

thanks for this provocative question. I note that the one time in my experience when sweeping tax reform really happened -- in Reagan's second term -- a great many loopholes and exceptions were wiped out. Then for three decades since, Congress has busily added new ones (and old ones) back into the tax code, so it is now worse than ever. And Obama asked for a bunch of new "tax credits" tonight. This may be an incurable disease.

Dear Mr. Kaiser: As someone who's probably seen the Democrats and the Republicans fight back and forth for a few cycles, what do you think is or will be the Republican view and responses to President Obama's requests tonight? Do you think that the President's pleas to have both parties work together have been heard, or will be still be boiled down to a fight between the rich and poor, clad under the heading of efficiency versus trade unions? Additionally, what (or if there) will be outcomes of the President's speech goals regarding limiting insider trading by members of congress and other methods to stop those who are corrupt from lining their own pockets? Thank you so much.

My previous answer is relevant here. But I do think the insider-trading ban, which almost passed late last year, is likely to be enacted, because the idea of Congressmen and Senators making money trading stocks based on government secrets they learn is so disgusting. 60 Minutes did an expose--somewhat unfair I thought--of this and got everyone roiled up.'

Will the public be able to invest in the future or will the tap be closed by pressure to end a defect?

The public, or Congress? Obama wants Congress to do it, and I don't think it's likely to happen as long as the Republicans hold the House.

Do you believe that Obama has been able to at least partially fullfil his promise to fix the economy? Recent numbers have shown that jobs have been created and there has been growth, but is it moving fast enough?

Thanks for this. Economics is of course a subject that most people, including I can tell you most members of Congress, do not really understand. The general expectation that a president can "fix" a bad economy is just foolish, really, yet we never abandon it. Also foolish is to give a president all the credit when there's a boom. The government is important at the margins, but economic trends are much bigger and more powerful than public policies most of the time.

This of course was doubly, or triply true after the Great Crash of 2008, which Obama had no role whatsoever in causing. It created a true economic disaster, the worst conditions since the Depression, as you have heard so often. No president, no prophet, no magician in the White House could have undone the effects of the Great Crash faster than the limp recovery we have seen, in my opinion. But that won't help Obama get reelected. People WILL hold bad times against him, which is why he hopes so fervently that what he said tonight about things getting better is really true.

Did I hear another suggestion that the Big Banks will help us folks that are dangling out here with mortgages and debt that is truly scary? I have yet to hear Bank of America do anything for me. I am a Democrat and support Mr. Obama and there needs to be some feedback from us, the real people,about how these programs are working.

I think Obama was referring to the negotiations now going on, and perhaps nearing completion, between the big banks and the state attorneys general over a general settlement of charges against the banks' foreclosure actions. They may actually produce meaningful concessions to mortgage-holders from the banks which are desperate to avoid lawsuits in every state.

Andrew Sullivan, usually a big fan of Obama, did not like this speech at all. Said it was Obama's worst SOTU. What did you think, overall?

I've learned not to trust my gut in these matters--I'm just not an average Joe, and my reactions are often way out of synch with the country's.  That said, I'm surprised that Sullivan says this. I thought it was the best of his three state of the union speeches.

I believe it's compulsory until age 16 most places now. So I can't imagine how it would be unconstitutional to raise that age to 18. I think it's a terrible idea, though.

But hundreds of thousands drop out before 16, so obviously that rule is not enforced.

the fundamental question of fairness really resonates with me. My boss is very wealthy, yet he complains incessantly about the specter of his taxes being raised, all while collecting a sizeable social security check every month. It boggles my mind, yet the President did not raise the issue of means-testing. Is there a bipartisan aversion to this issue?

Yes there is. Some years back the law was changed to tax Social Security benefits, a back-door way to means-test, but I don' t expect it to go any further. The problem is, we all pay in, so expect to get the pay-out.

Why hasn't anybody pointed out that Mitt Romney's 13.9% 2010 effective tax rate is less than what the rest of us pay in Self-Employment taxes ALONE? (15.3% -- 12.4% for social security and 2.9% for Medicare). How's this fair?

And he pays no FICA tax, because he doesn't have a job.

If a majority of voters come election time see no improvement in the economy or unemployment which have steadily worsened over Obama's tenure, they certainly cannot answer positively to the question "Are you better off today than when Obama was elected?" So why in the world would they vote for four more years of a failed presidency?

Your facts are wrong. Neither the economy nor unemployment has "steadily worsened" under Obama. Nor have they improved a lot, obviously. "Failed presidency" is not a judgement a majority of American snow accepts, according to the polls.

This was a partisan, campaign speech. Sad that this is what our country has become. Im an independent and I was put off by this speech.

Thanks for posting.

Doesn't it seem like the skill set required to be elected in to political office is fundamentally different the skill set required to be a great politician (not a great debater/idealist/personality....but a great politician in the traditional sense, someone who gets things done)?

Running and governing do not require the same talents, alas.

I had never seen Mitch Daniels speak before. He made some interesting points about the need to preserve the social safety net and reform the tax code that suggest there might be common ground with the Democrats. Also some baloney about how we are in immediate peril of becoming Greece and how divisive Obama has been. But I found him almost intensely non-charismatic, particularly in comparison to Obama, and he had a sort of off-putting way of turning his head to side instead of looking directly into the camera. Its hard for me to see this guy as a real contender for President. Thoughts?

Thanks for the post. I think Daniels is a bit short in the charisma department, but he's been a very successful governor. But he's not a contender for president--he isn't running!

Which Republican Presidential candidate do you think was most helped by the SOTU? Which the least helped?

Is this a serious question? I'm hoping not...

Thank you so much for your comment on this. I have been unable to really get people around me to understand that the economic cycle.....and the fact that what goes up, must come that it can go back up again. My problem with the Bush Administration is that they began to manipulate the economy in 2000 with those little stimulus checks.......trying to stay away from recession while in office. If they had not had done that, maybe.....just maybe, we would not have crashed so hard in 2007-2008.

I can't agree with your analysis. The crash wasn't caused by stimulus checks, it was caused by reckless borrowing at every level, from the biggest Wall Street banks to the smallest homeowners buying houses they couldn't afford.

"Some companies fail." I liked the defense the president gave for his clean air initiatives. Not everything is going to work, but to say government doesn't have a role in developing new products is beyond silly.

thanks for this.

I am 27, and I have not met a single person in my age bracket who is relying on social security. In fact, I don't know anyone under 30 who thinks they will even GET any social security payments. I think you should be able to opt out of the system entirely (i.e., not pay in to it and not receive it). What are your thoughts on this?

You think Social Security won't survive, so you want to pull out of it. But your parents and grandparents are counting on it, and it will only be there for them if you are in the program. Your solution may suit your interests; it doesn't suit the country's, in my opinion.

Do you think any politician was influenced or swayed away from the beliefs/behaviors they brought to this speech?


Right on Mr. President. We are all in this together and there are plenty of us who are having a very hard time post 2008 housing prices. I am a single parent who borrowed against her house equity to put a daughter through college and is now in trouble but you give me hope and a reason to keep going. Kuddos to your unbiased common sense! Howey - Sonora, Ca.

Thanks for posting.

I am a supporter of Obama but did you think this was more of a laundry list than usual?

It's ALWAYS a laundry list, and in a way that's the point--it is about the state of the nation, after all.


The first evidence, just disclosed, suggests the speech played well with independents. Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, has just reported on two focus groups of 50 independent and lean-Republican voters in Colorado that suggests the speech was a big success with such people. He has a website called Democracy Corps where you can read his findings tomorrow.

Serious question: Who will be able to make the most political hay out of it, Gingrich or Santorum?

I'll be surprised if either can do much with it.

The issue of fairness (or, in Republican terminology, class warfare) is shaping up to be a big issue. Historically I don't think it's worked very well for Democrats. Do you think circumstances now are such that it is likely to be more effective now?

Not sure what the basis of your remark is? Fairness worked fabulously for the Democrats the last time we had a huge economic disclocation, didn't it? In the '30s? Neither Obama nor the Dems used it in '08 or '10, but they're going to this time, and the polls suggest it's a good argument for them.

Wait, I thought Romney earned a paltry (LOL!) $374K in speaking fees. Doesn't he have to pay income tax and FICA on those?

whoops, you're absolutely right. Sorry. In fact the tax returns released today put the number over $500K, I believe.

I heard our President express an intent to act with or without Congress. Does this posture set the stage for more contention and strife rather than colloboration?

Sure it might.

Enough. That was a lively hour. Thank you all for taking part, and apologies to those to whose comments I failed to respond. I'll be back! Good night.

In This Chat
Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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