Last Tuesday’s state of the union was remarkable, not because of what it was, but rather because of what it wasn’t.
It wasn’t filled with a laundry list of promises — soon to go unfulfilled. The President didn’t proclaim until the end of the speech that "the state of our union is strong." The speech lacked any remarkable rhetoric, like the phrase "axis of evil," that often comes with the State of the Union and forever sticks out in the public’s mind. The speech also wasn’t interrupted by the thunderous, ceremonial applause that usually goes along with the State of the Union. Maybe it was Tucson. I think it’s more likely the realization that the U.S. has very serious problems that both parties now own.
I read an advance copy of the speech and the text itself was dull. The President gave a much better speech than his speech writers wrote. He remains a compelling figure. And the basic message — innovation, education, fiscal responsibility — represent a strong agenda on which to govern.
Two years ago the speech would have been visionary. And, of course, the President was fighting all sorts of fires when he came into office. His critics would say that instead of governing he was the legislator in chief and focused his energy on health care reform rather running the country. Time will tell whether the President made the right bet.
Regardless of whether this may have been the right speech for the wrong time, the President now has to execute on his vision. We need a "Manhattan Project" type effort on everything he mentioned last week. That’s why I, along with former Senator Bob Kerry and my partner Mark Alderman, advocated recently in the Washington Post that the President should create the position of Chief Operating Officer to drive key national priorities.
I’ve been at the center of one such effort during my time as Chief Operating Officer of the Troubled Asset Relief Program at the U.S. Treasury from 2008-2009. While TARP is often criticized, it’s not for lack of effective execution. We executed that program by bringing in the right people, focusing them day in and day out on our mission of stabilizing the financial system while protecting the taxpayer. Change and adaptability were ingrained in our culture. And we stressed accountability to our stakeholders. While TARP is often misunderstood because of its complexity, it is the most transparent and overseen program in the history of the United States Government.
No Member of Congress, given the politics around the TARP, would say we need a TARP-like effort to execute the national priorities that the President identified in the State of the Union. But we need a TARP-like effort nonetheless. While the 2012 campaign looms, and no doubt motivates some of the President’s focus and attention the President and his team need to make this happen. They need to govern. Call it what they will, history will judge this President based on how he governs and what he gets done.
Actions speak louder than words.