Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Last chance to conquer the deficits

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1948 GMT (0348 HKT)
First lady Michelle Obama, center, is recognized by the audience and special guests surrounding her before President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union speech. Front row, left to right: Marine Sgt. Sheena Adams, Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendelton, Michelle Obama, Menchu de Luna Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row, left to right: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan and Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy. First lady Michelle Obama, center, is recognized by the audience and special guests surrounding her before President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union speech. Front row, left to right: Marine Sgt. Sheena Adams, Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendelton, Michelle Obama, Menchu de Luna Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row, left to right: Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan and Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy.
HIDE CAPTION
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
Past presidential guests at State of the Union
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Gergen: President Obama's State of the Union could be crucial for second term
  • He says if Obama doesn't get GOP to the table, we could see high-stakes budget fight
  • It would be a mistake for Democrats to think they can win by refusing to negotiate, he says
  • He says Obama's shift in tone to more partisan approach is a big mistake

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night is likely to be the most important domestic speech that he gives during the rest of his presidency -- but not for the reasons commonly cited.

Conventional wisdom holds that the address offers the president the biggest platform -- and audience -- he will have to lay out his agenda and priorities for the next four years.

Environmentalists are eagerly awaiting his promises on regulation of existing coal-fired power plants, on the Keystone XL pipeline and on international climate negotiations. The anti-gun community wants to know if he will fight for an assault weapons ban. Latinos want to see how he will advance on immigration. And so on ... and on.

David Gergen
David Gergen

These and other issues are significant and will feature heavily in post-address analysis. But at the end of the day, the transcendent issue -- at least for most Americans right now -- is whether the president will propel the economy forward by breaking the deadlock on the nation's fiscal mess.

Kinzinger: Obama's huge opportunity
CNN Explains: The State of the Union

This State of the Union address is probably the last chance that Obama has to reignite serious negotiations over a "grand bargain." Absent some sort of breakthrough soon, we are heading toward a sequester (lots of automatic spending cuts in domestic and defense programs) in March. That will in turn set off new rounds of squabbling and the likelihood that for months if not years to come, the nation will careen from one mini-crisis to the next, failing to solve underlying problems.

For Obama, economists from Paul Krugman to Larry Summers have argued for some time that jobs and growth would be best served by a two-stage process: new spending on infrastructure and the like in the near term (more stimulus) followed by iron-clad reductions in deficits over the long haul. Instead, Washington is inviting just the opposite: a round of spending cuts in the near followed by weak, inadequate reductions in deficits over the long haul. Both will be a drag on growth and jobs.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Democrats argue that Republicans are to blame -- and clearly they deserve a great deal of criticism, especially for their obstructionism. But the day after the elections, Republican House Speaker John Boehner offered tax increases, a huge concession, and now it is the Democrats who seem less willing to make tough choices and strike a long-term bargain.

Moreover, Obama is the only leader in Washington elected by all the people, and as president, he has prime responsibility for finding a path forward. What can he do in his State of the Union to achieve a breakthrough? Two suggestions:

First, he should make a forthright new offer to Republicans: In exchange for them calling off the sequester and agreeing to infrastructure investments, he will offer them a set of concrete steps he will support to bring Medicare and Social Security under control. In addition, he will name negotiators to work with Congress, starting this year, on tax and entitlement changes, and additional tax increases and spending cuts to put our house in order. Both sides will have to compromise further than they have so far on cherished commitments.

Obama is ... elected by all the people, and as president, he has prime responsibility for finding a path forward.
David Gergen

Second, the president should commit to working with Republicans to create a new tone for their relationship. Instead of each side looking upon negotiations as "I win; you lose," the goal must be to create a "win-win." It is not necessary that each side like the other, but it is necessary that each side puts country first.

Are these two steps hopelessly idealistic? Probably. If anything, all signs point in exactly the opposite direction. On substance, the president continues to say he would like a grand bargain but mostly on his terms, and he has done virtually nothing to fight for it. Indeed, in his inaugural, he seemed to step back from overhauling entitlements, portraying himself as chief defender of Medicare and Social Security.

As the sequester approaches, he has offered a tactical set of small-bore proposals, not a strategic plan that would break the deadlock. Down deep, has he decided that he doesn't really care whether we solve the deficit mess on his watch -- that he accepts the liberal notion that it's a problem for 2020, not now? One wonders.

On tone, the president has pivoted even more. Instead of the conciliatory Obama of the first term, we have seen a hard-nosed pugilist who paints Republicans as wackos ready to hurt senior citizens and starve children to protect the rich.

It was discouraging to read Monday's lead article in Politico in which correspondent Glenn Thrush, citing Democrats in the White House and on the Hill, reported that Obama in his State of the Union will offer the GOP not an olive branch but a cattle prod. One Obama aide close to the drafting process quoted Sun Tzu: "Build your enemy a golden bridge on which to retreat."

This is a team that wants a win-win negotiation over the deficits?

The suspicion deepens that the Obama folks have secretly adopted a strategy of making Republicans look so extreme that they will be driven from power in 2014 and the president can then govern as he chooses in his final two years in office.

For the country's sake, one hopes this suspicion is wrong. The window for achieving a grand bargain has been closing rapidly and could slam shut Tuesday night.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT