One Year Later: Grading Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address

Tonight marks President Obama’s third—and possibly final—State of the Union (SOTU) address, but before focusing on his ambitions for 2012, we wanted to look back at his pledges from last year’s address. As many of you remember, last year’s SOTU came not only at the start of divided government following the Democrats “shellacking” in the 2010 elections, but also just over 2 weeks following the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. In this context, Obama called for unity and cooperation among the two parties: “We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.”

We all know how well that went. But what about the other pledges from last year’s speech? To rate Obama’s success in accomplishing his 2011 goals, we first went back to the speech to parse out his concrete policy proposals. Broadly speaking, his speech focused on 8 primary themes: (1) investment for the future (including research, technology, education, and physical infrastructure); (2) the U.S. tax code; (3) government regulations; (4) the federal deficit; (5) the organization and transparency of the federal government; (6) immigration policy; and (7) foreign policy. Out of these themes, we pulled out the most significant (and specific) policy proposals:


Policy Proposal: Increase investment in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy technology.

Result: Success. The President’s FY2012 budget requested targeted increases in spending on research at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy (DOE). Ultimately, Congress approved a 2.5% increase for the NSF (appropriating $7.03 billion for FY2012), with research and related activities increasing by 2.8%. For the DOE, the enacted budget brought a 2.5% increase for energy innovation investment-related Offices and programs. Finally, while funding for NIH as a whole remained flat, funding for the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (an Institute within NIH) increased by 8.0 percent.


Policy Proposal: Eliminate subsidies given to oil companies in order to free up money for investment in clean energy.

Result: Failure. Despite the attention these subsidies have been received in Congress and in the media, Big Oil continues to receive approximately $3.6 to $4.5 billion a year in tax breaks and other advantages.


Policy Proposal: Begin talks on comprehensive immigration reform.

Result: Failure. Despite speeches from the President that “[w]hat we really need to do is to keep up the fight to pass genuine, comprehensive reform,” Congress has shown no interest in taking up the issue.  And it is extremely unlikely that any headway will be made during an election year.


Policy Proposal: Replace No Child Left Behind with “Race to the Top”.

Result: Failure. Despite attempts at comprehensive education reform, Congress has been unable to agree on how to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, with the law’s toughest sanctions for underperforming schools right around the corner, the Administration is expected to allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind in the coming months.


Policy Proposal:  Make the tuition tax credit permanent.

Result: Failure. The American Opportunity Tax Credit was not made permanent, and is still expected to expire in December 2012.


Policy Proposal: Simplify the tax code by getting rid of the loopholes and use the money to lower the corporate tax rate.

Result: Failure. Simplification of the tax code received a significant amount of attention in talks on reducing the fiscal deficit—it’s one of the only possible ways to increase revenue that Republicans seem amenable to—, but to date neither the tax code nor the corporate tax rate has been changed.


Policy Proposal: Review government regulations in order to find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses.

Result: Success. In addition to Executive Order 13563 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review, the President called for a government-wide review of existing regulations. The draft plans were released to the public for discussion, and the final plans were published here.


Policy proposal: Develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government.

Result: Work in progress. After inaction for all of 2011, President Obama requested (on January 13, 2012) the authority to reorganize government.


Policy Proposal: Increase government transparency by introducing a website where Americans can see how and where tax dollars are being spent.

Result: Success. A new online tool called “Your Federal Taxpayer Receipt” has been in place since April 15, 2011.


Policy Proposal: Pass the free trade agreement with South Korea.

Result: Success. The agreement was approved by both the House and Senate in October 2011.


Policy proposal: Bring troops home from Afghanistan in July.

Result: Work in progress. In June 2011, the President announced the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, and a total of 33,000 troops by the end of 2012.


In short, while President Obama achieved a number of his policy goals, the most significant ones (i.e., tax reform and comprehensive immigration reform) went unfulfilled. And given that 2012 is an election year, it is highly unlikely that more progress will be made this year than last.


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