WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 25: U.S. President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), addresses a Joint Session of Congress while delivering his State of the Union speech January 25, 2011 in Washington, DC. During his speech Obama was expected to focus on the U.S. economy and increasing education and infrastructure funding while proposing a three-year partial freeze of domestic programs and $78 billion in military spending cuts. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama outlined a vision of a more competitive, innovative country that produces entire new industries and the world's most educated people.
Which sounds nice. Except for the fact that Obama won't be able to achieve any of that while California's government and state budget are an unholy mess. And the president's broader budget strategy is almost certain to make things in California worse. In this way, California undermines Obama's plans, and Obama sabotages himself.
How exactly? Consider higher education. Central to President Obama's strategy of a more competitive and innovative America is a big increase in the percentage of Americans who are college graduates. Obama noted in his speech that the U.S., which once led the world in this statistic, has fallen to ninth.
California is crucial to fixing that. The state produces roughly one-seventh of college graduates, far more than any other state. It's home to the largest public university systems in the country. And the state lags the national average in terms of the percentage of its people who are college graduates. So if you want to make America better educated and competitive, you need a big surge in the number of college graduates in California.
Unfortunately, because of the state's budget and governance crisis, California is in the process of reducing the number of people who can attend college. Budget cuts hit higher education hardest here because the university systems don't have the same kinds of constitutional and legal protections that other parts of the budget have. Gov. Brown's budget would reduce state support for the University of California by 20 percent.
But you say, since President Obama is so concerned about college graduation and economic competitiveness, he's certainly going to step up and fight for funds that will prevent those cuts from ever taking place.
Nope. To the contrary, Obama is pledging budget austerity -- including a five-year freeze on spending. It's likely that federal support for colleges and universities may be cut. Certainly, with federal stimulus money running out, that means less cash for California's education system.
The same dynamic undermines the president in other areas. Take jobs: A president can't reduce national unemployment below 9 percent when unemployment in his largest state is persistently above 12 percent. Put simply, the administration needs to focus on California -- and push the state to deal with its budget and governance issues. Until the president acts, Obama's talk of competitiveness is just talk.