Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for January 31, 2010

State of the Union Address

Posted on January 31, 2010

There has been a lot of talk about how the president is trying to reconnect with the American people.  The president himself said a few days ago, after Massachusetts elected a Republican senator, that perhaps he had not been talking to the American people directly about what matters most to them.

To reconnect with the American people, I suggest that the president focus on creating jobs, reining in the national debt, and fighting terrorism.  Then, it would not hurt my feelings one bit if he stopped right there and focused his unswerving attention on all three until he has them headed in a better direction.  After all, in my view, the president struggled in his first year not only because his agenda veered too far to the left, but because he took too many big bites out of too many apples and tried to swallow them all at once.

Years ago, I learned that a governor who throws himself into a single issue with everything he has for as long as it takes can usually wear out everybody else.  I think that is true for presidents, too.  In 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "I shall go to Korea."  Then he focused on that one problem, ended the conflict, and Americans thanked him for it.

I hope President Obama would focus with Eisenhower-like intensity on jobs.  In the 1980s, I found the best way to do that was not to try to turn my state, Tennessee, upside-down all at once.  We were then the third poorest state in the union.  My goal was raising family incomes.  So I went step by step—sometimes learning as I went—amending banking laws, defending right-to-work, keeping debt and taxes low, recruiting Japanese industry and then the auto industry, building four-lane highways so the auto suppliers could get to the auto plants, and finally proposing a 10-step "Better Schools" plan which included centers and chairs of excellence for higher education.

In my view, a step-by-step jobs strategy for the country should include tax relief, less regulation, certainty (so businesses can plan ahead), free trade, a balanced labor climate, good educational opportunities, and clean but cheap energy.  Unfortunately, the president has too often proposed higher taxes, more regulation, uncertainty, protectionism, expensive labor policy, higher college tuitions (as Medicare costs are passed on to states), a national energy tax, and new costs for the businesses that we count on to create jobs.

As for debt, Democrats in Congress this week raised the national debt limit by $1.9 trillion, an amount that is more than the total federal budget in 1999 and the largest debt increase in history.  To be sure, President Obama inherited some of this, but he has run up a $1.5 trillion debt in just one year and it took President Bush eight years to accumulate a $2 trillion debt.  The solution for a boat sinking because it has a hole in it is not to put more holes in it.

Finally, the president deserves credit for his decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, but bringing terrorists from Guantanamo to Illinois, trying the 9/11 mastermind in New York City, and failing to interrogate the Christmas Day "underwear bomber" in Detroit show dangerous confusion about how to deal with terrorists.

When I became governor, Ned McWherter, then the Democratic house speaker, said, "I want to help because if the Governor succeeds the State succeeds."  In the same way, I want President Obama to succeed.  The best way for him to do that, I respectfully suggest, is to declare an end to the era of the 2,700-page bills and to work with both political parties, step by step, on jobs, debt, and terrorism to help Washington re-earn the trust of the American people.