Just more about Jobs, Jobs, Jobs or Setting the stage for Long-Term Economic Competitiveness

Just more about Jobs, Jobs, Jobs or Setting the stage for Long-Term Economic Competitiveness?

Today, February 12th 2013, President Obama will give the 227th State of the Union address and the 5th of his presidency. This specific speech will have special significance because it is the first of his second term as president. It is his opening volley and will help set the policy tone for the next four years.  It, in other worlds, is an important speech.

But what should, and ultimately what will, Obama say?

Here I typically use a very specific and concrete gauge: what does the American public want?  What are people’s priorities? And finally what are the primary priorities of Obama’s own Democrat base who went out en masse to elect their man?  Usually by answering these simple questions, we should have a good idea about a president’s State of the Union address and policy agenda for the near-term.  Similarly, if a president, or any other political actor for that matter, does not talk to those issues which resonate with public opinion, then this is a good leading indicator of political and policy failure.

So what will Obama’s speech and policy agenda emphasize?

To answer this question, let’s take a peek at some of our own public opinion polling.  What do we find?

First and foremost, Obama’s address and subsequent policy agenda will be domestic in direction.  Unlike the Bush II years, which included a hyper-focus on foreign policy, terrorism, and two foreign wars, since 2008 and the economic meltdown, the American public’s attention has been almost exclusively  on domestic issues.

state-of-union-graph

No longer does national security reign supreme but instead issues like the economy and jobs, healthcare, and energy are high on Americans’ list of priorities. This is not to say that Obama will not touch on foreign policy. He most definitely will: especially as it relates to the winding down of hard power policies and our military presence abroad.

Second, Americans are still most worried about ‘jobs and the economy’.  This agenda item has been king since 2008. Obama’s agenda has, in large part, focused on this more macro issue (see table below).

Main Problems by Party Identification

   

Party ID

Total

Democrat

Republican

Independent

None/DK

Economy generally

39%

37%

45%

38%

28%

Unemployment / lack of jobs

21%

23%

17%

21%

18%

War / foreign conflicts

2%

3%

1%

2%

1%

Immigration

3%

2%

4%

3%

2%

Terrorism / terrorist attacks

2%

2%

2%

2%

1%

Healthcare

7%

9%

5%

8%

7%

Energy issues

1%

1%

0%

1%

1%

Morality

6%

3%

10%

5%

7%

Education

3%

5%

2%

3%

2%

Crime

3%

4%

1%

3%

3%

Environment

1%

2%

1%

2%

1%

Don’t know

4%

3%

2%

3%

18%

Other, please specify:

7%

5%

8%

10%

10%

Source: Ipsos-Reuters Poll January 2013

Given this, we should expect Obama to have this same focus.  However, Obama will probably not make one of those “jobs, jobs, jobs” speeches full of small and specific one-off employment policies.  Instead, Obama will most probably re-frame ‘jobs and employment’ into the broader issue of long-term American competitiveness and economic growth.  Here, Obama will make the case that investment in education, immigration reform, healthcare reform, renewable energy policies, climate change policies, and targeted government regulation are all essential for America’s long-term stability.

Obama has used this tactic several times in the past –most notably during his 2011 State of the Union address where he talked about the need for ‘innovation’ in education, healthcare, immigration, and regulation and its impact on long-term growth.  In pollster parlance, Obama reframed less salient issues, such as education and environment, as the key solution to the most important problem (Jobs and the Economy) to make a credible case for his policy agenda. We should expect him to do the same tonight.

Additionally, by linking issues in this way, Obama kills ‘two birds with one stone’.  First, he will make the case that an active government is essential in ensuring the needed reforms and infrastructure investments (clean energy, education, healthcare, etc). And second, these second order issues are really the ones that most resonate with his base (see table below).

Most Important Issues in Determining Vote: Obama versus Romney 2012

 

Obama

Romney

Difference

Unemployment

51%

48%

+3

Deficit / Budget

17%

81%

-64

Taxes

61%

38%

+23

Economy in general

42%

57%

-15

Healthcare

73%

27%

+46

Medicare / Medicaid

71%

29%

+42

Environment

85%

10%

+75

Energy, gas prices

50%

47%

+3

Social security

73%

25%

+48

Education

89%

9%

+80

Crime, law and order

63%

33%

+30

Immigration

54%

44%

+10

International issues / conflicts abroad

63%

34%

+29

Social issues

55%

44%

+11

AVERAGE DIFFERENCE

+23

Source:  Ipsos-Reuters Exit Poll November 2013

Third, Obama won in 2012 on his social agenda—gay marriage, economic equality, gun control, women’s rights, and related issues.  Ultimately, it was his effective use of these wedge issues that got his base out in greater numbers than that of Romney.  We should expect that Obama will touch on these issues given their importance as the ‘red meat’ issues of his base (see table below).

Stronger on Key Match-ups: Obama versus Romney

Obama

Romney

Difference

Healthcare

41

37

+4

Auto industry

43

29

+14

Environment

44

26

+18

Women’s rights

50

26

+24

Social security

41

33

+8

Education

45

30

+15

Gay marriage

45

27

+18

Immigration

34

34

0

Foreign policy

40

33

+7

AVERAGE DIFFERENCE

+12

Source:  Ipsos-Reuters Pre-Election Poll October-November 2013

How will he weave these issues into his overall agenda?  In part, Obama will probably make the case that such social issues will contribute to US long-term competitiveness and growth.  However, as in the past, he is likely to also make the case that social justice in its own right is an important objective.

Finally, the real flash-point between Obama and the Republicans has been how to deal with the federal debt and deficit reduction—with the fiscal cliff controversy being the most recent interaction.  Most Americans (65% to 75% depending on the question) do see the federal debt as a the single greatest barrier to long-term American competitiveness.   So where will Obama fall on the issue?

Here, it is quite clear that Obama, his base, and the more general public see a ‘mixed solution’ to deficit reduction as the ideal answer.  Such a solution would include both spending cuts as well as tax increases (see my recent blog entry).  Obama will probably strike this tone in his address.

Obama, however, is still ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ on this issue because a strong plurality of Republicans sees spending cuts as the sole solution.  On this, Obama has often reframed the deficit issue in terms of fairness. That all segments of society should share in the burden—the rich , the poor, and the middle class.  Ultimately, deficit reduction will be part of high long-term competitiveness agenda but – unlike the Republican stance – will not be the primary focus.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding, so let’s see what Obama actually does. But as history shows us, Obama does a good job at hitting the right mix of policy and popular appeal.