19 Jan 2016

How Strong is the State of the Union?


On Tuesday, January 12, President Obama spared us a recitation of his administration’s accomplishments and chose to focus on the issues the country will confront in coming years. His words of praise for new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and acknowledgement of his own role in the corrosive partisanship that has dominated political discourse during his tenure showed grace and spoke to a near universal sense of exasperation among many Americans. All memorable valedictories evoke some sincere sense of loss for what might have been. The president’s speech elicited such a reaction from me.

As predicted, the president sought to assuage Americans’ fears, focusing on issues of terrorism. He disappointed, however, in his discussion of economic insecurity, a pervasive and enduring source of anxiety among the vast majority of the electorate. While he trumpeted the decline in the unemployment rate, he failed to speak to the historic decline in the all-important workforce participation rate.

Why have so many Americans abandoned the search for work when employers have posted notices for 5.5 million job openings? He invoked a number of shibboleths as solutions, including the proposal that the minimum wage be raised, despite the General Accounting Office’s prediction that such a move will ultimately lead to substantial job losses. And although investments have been made to bolster the computer literacy of disadvantaged youth to enable them to get good jobs in the future, STEM jobs have, in fact, declined as a percentage of the workforce over the last fifteen years. Important issues like widespread underemployment were also ignored.

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As for the economy, while no one can deny that the president inherited a country in severe economic distress, his description of his accomplishments did little to reassure listeners that the lackluster growth rates, stagnant wages, and high poverty levels that have prevailed during the last seven years will soon be reversed.

Finally, it seemed to me that the president was right to use his bully pulpit to educate millions of Americans about the importance of a number of global developments, including his support for passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the benefits of the free trade it fosters. His principled defense of that position offers an opportunity to advance America’s interest through precisely the type of bipartisan action he indicated was essential for our nation to remain strong.

Joseph Fuller is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. He was a founder and the first employee of the global consulting firm, Monitor Group (now Monitor-Deloitte). During his three decades in consulting, Fuller served clients in a wide variety of industries, especially those with a heavy reliance on technology, and has particularly deep experience in life sciences, ICT and the defense and aerospace industries, as well as serving a number of national and regional governments in developing policies for enhancing competitiveness. The views expressed here are his own.

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