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New Rules or New Game?

January 26, 2011

In his State of the Union Address tonight, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the rules governing our society and our place in the world have changed. Many Americans, he said, have experienced the impact of these changes in lost opportunities, diminished outlook and a dashed sense of optimism if not outright despair. Nevertheless, the President challenged us to see the future as ours to shape, and he outlined a four-point plan to renew American confidence in our competence, our creativity and our ability to make the world a better place by collaborating andcompeting.

The four elements of the President’s plan — innovation, education, building the nation, and managing the debt — seem sound but strike me as not enough to meet the challenges we face. If what we confront, as the President himself proposed, is a “Sputnik moment,” we have less need for new rules than we do for a whole new game.

As the President himself noted in examples sprinkled throughout his speech, the greatest changes have arisen from people seeing in past crises opportunities dressed up as challenges. The nation itself, he noted, was founded on just such a radical idea. The notion that the nation’s existence reflects a quest to promote an idea — securing the common good by protecting individual liberty — was itself a radical innovation in its day, and one we are in danger of taking for granted.

In what struck me as burying the lede, the President made few if any bold policy pronouncements or proposals until he mentioned his administration’s plan to present a proposal to reorganize executive branch departments and agencies to reflect his agenda. He gave few hints at what this might look like beyond offering an amusing anecdote about the conflicted way in which our government regulates and protects salmon, smoked and otherwise.

Incremental changes in government administration, tax policy and fiscal management will not fix the problems facing our country or renew the promise of its founding documents or the potential of its citizens. The President admitted as much himself, but he offered few if any tangible insights into how we might restore the vitality of the institutions touched by the agenda he proposed. I for one hope that the relative position of comments concerning reorganization of executive branch functions in his remarks does not reflect the true priority of this initiative. If it does, the other planks of the platform he outlined may be doomed.

Finally, unless you count his goal of increasing the percentage of energy we produce from renewable sources to 80 percent by 2035, his remarks barely touched on homeland security. When he turned to foreign policy concerns near the end of his address, he relied almost entirely on boilerplate plaudits. While renewing promises that al Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters will have no safe haven while he occupies the Oval Office, he made the point that renewed focus on domestic issues does not mean abandoning our commitments abroad or seeing those beyond our borders solely as consumers or competitors.

With all of this said, I wonder whether you see the President’s remarks as new rules, a new game or neither? Either way, what would you like to see come of each of the four policy planks he proposed? How will actions to implement policies in each of the four areas — innovation, education, infrastructure and debt — help us build a stronger, safer nation?


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