Obama's New Theme: Competitiveness

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If you tune in to President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, you're probably going to hear the word "competitive"--and its many variations--again and again.

As the President explained in a preview of his speech, his primary focus "is going be making sure that we are competitive ... I will talk to the nation about how we can win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building the rest of the world." It's no coincidence, then, that Obama's new economic advisory board, led by GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, will be called the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

What's the reception to the new theme guiding Obama's economic policy?

  • Obama Is Redefining the 'Center,' claims The Washington Post's Greg Sargent. Some people believe Obama's call for competitiveness represents a move to the political center, Sargent explains, but "it seems more likely that Obama's speech will seek to redefine the 'center.'" The President's discussion of competitiveness will probably serve as a bridge to the part of his speech where he "will defend his health care plan and continue making the case for [government] 'investment'--a.k.a. government spending--to bolster our long term prospects."
  • Theme Is a Misdiagnosis, states Paul Krugman at The New York Times. Yes, Obama may be enlisting "an old cliché" for the worthy purpose of convincing a public opposed to more government spending that the country needs additional public investment, Krugman reasons. But "ultimately, we're in a mess because we had a financial crisis, not because American companies have lost their ability to compete with foreign rivals."
  • There's a Dark Side to Competition, argues The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. Obama "talks about winning the future. But the future isn't something you win. It's something you share. If China's growth slows, it means the country will continue to provide an endless supply of cheap labor without ever getting rich enough to buy American goods. We may 'win' in the sense of having the largest GDP. But that's a worse future than one in which China becomes a major customer, reducing our trade deficit and creating a lot of American jobs." Klein notes, however, that Obama appeared to dismiss this "zero-sum" mentality in his weekly radio address by suggesting the U.S. open up more markets to American goods.
  • How Is Obama Defining Competitiveness? wonders Robert Reich, who served as Bill Clinton's labor secretary. Obama should measure American competitiveness by the number of quality of American jobs, he contends, not by the volume of American exports, the balance of trade, or the profits U.S.-based companies earn:

It's politically important for President Obama, as for any president, to be available to American business, and to avoid the moniker of [being] 'anti-business.' But the President must not be seduced into believing--and must not allow the public to be similarly seduced into thinking--that the well-being of American business is synonymous with the well-being of Americans.

  • Don't Believe the Rhetoric, asserts The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin: "In fact, Obama is opposed to things that really would aid competitiveness--reducing the cost of capital and labor, repealing oppressive mandates (including ObamaCare), and doing away with costly goodies for organized labor (e.g. Davis-Bacon 'prevailing wage' rules)."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.