U.S. agriculture didn't find itself in the spotlight from President Barack Obama's State of the Union message, but there were components of the speech that many in agriculture no doubt liked to hear, in particular his call for passage of the U.S.-Korea trade deal.
On biofuels, unlike then-President George W. Bush in 2006 who specifically mentioned ethanol, Obama called for an increased federal commitment to clean energy. With more research and incentives, Obama said the U.S. "can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies."
Trade policy was one area which ag interests also found President Obama's remarks ones most can back. Obama reiterated his pledge from last year to double U.S. exports by 2014, and also called for action on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Obama said, "the more we export, the more jobs we create at home. Already, our exports are up. Recently, we signed agreements with India and China that will support more than 250,000 jobs in the United States. And last month, we finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs. This agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor; Democrats and Republicans, and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible."
On the difficult topic of budget cuts, Obama called on Congress to approve a freeze in non-security discretionary spending "as a down payment toward reducing the deficit."
Obama said the freeze he is proposing would mean "painful cuts" for the government. And while backing budget cuts, Obama warned that they can't be "on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. And let’s make sure what we’re cutting is really excess weight."
Further, he said that a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is something that can't happen.
Regarding the dicey situation on immigration, Obama indicated the U.S. "should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. I know that debate will be difficult and take time. But tonight, let's agree to make that effort. And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation."
When it came to health care, Obama said he supported efforts to address a provision in the law that would cause a major increase in the number of 1099 tax forms that would have to be filed. "We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses," Obama noted.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also recently said that Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who has championed getting rid of this provision, was "absolutely" correct in this drive to eliminate that provision.
But perhaps one of the most striking things about Obama's message was the almost-subdued reaction in the House chamber. Lawmakers essentially "paired up" with Democrats sitting side-by-side with Republicans. In the case of agriculture, Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) sat with the panel's ranking Republican Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Many observers credited this shift with keeping the chamber less political than has typically been the case when a president has delivered his update to Congress. Perhaps then the biggest question is whether this lack of partisanship carries beyond this joint session of the House and Senate in the weeks and months ahead.