In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, President Obama set the stage for what will be a very heated debate in Congress. Obama and the Democrats will argue that in order to compete with China, India and other emerging world powers, we must choose a scalpel -- rather than an ax -- in cutting government.
Republicans will argue that an ax is needed to both preserve safety-net entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, and avoid future staggering increases in debt that will harm future standards of living in the U.S.
But it will be an oh, so civil battle. In fact, the faux civility between congresspersons during Obama's speech is enough to send one running to the cupboard for a big dose of sugar to get that taste of saccharine out of our mouths. Our national representatives huddled together to hear the president in bipartisan pair-offs that in other circumstances might be fodder for a low-rent cable TV reality show.
But enough of the kitsch -- back to the politics. Obama described this generation as being in a "Sputnik moment." We agree with the president. We have to restore U.S. competitiveness against our world neighbors. Other countries are beating the U.S. in infrastructure development, technology advances, broadband Internet access, and transportation options. Obama's strategy is to instill in Americans the type of drive and innovation that fueled our nation's growth and dominance post World War II. During his speech, he subtly portrayed the tax-cutting, deficit-concerned Tea Party as ideologues eager to cut muscle as well as fat from the federal government. He described favoring cuts before "investments in innovation and education" to ditching an engine in mid flight to lighten an airplane. "It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact," Obama said.
Tea Party conservatives do have a point that excess spending and tax hikes are an unhealthy prescription for a nation struggling with an official unemployment rate of 9.6 percent (it's really much higher than that). And Obama acknowledged the poor economy by extending the Bush-era tax cuts last month. The November election results underscore that Americans agree with Republicans desire to cut the deficit and trim government to 2008 levels. That will resonate when many budget-worried Americans. Obama and the Democrats' task will be to persuade voters that government still has an integral role -- and a needed budget -- in helping move innovation along.
Don't be fooled by the "civility." The arguments will be just as fierce as ever as Obama heads toward the second half of his first term.