In a State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama proposed a five-year freeze in discretionary spending on nondefense programs and vowed to veto any bill containing earmarks. But the president said he would spare education and research from the freeze and spending cuts, calling them vital to the nation's long-term growth and competitiveness.
"Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine," he said. "It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact."
Mr. Obama said his budget for the 2012 fiscal year, due out in February, will call for spending on biomedical research, information technology, and clean-energy technology. He proposed paying for the increases by eliminating tax breaks for oil companies.
College lobbyists, not surprisingly, applauded the president's remarks.
"We agree with the president that the nation needs to take strong action to reduce budget deficits, and that as we do so, we must continue to direct additional resources toward research and education to ensure America's economic competitiveness and global leadership," said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities. "It is our hope that sustained investment in research and education, even as we reduce deficits, is something Democrats and Republicans can agree on."
But increased spending could be a hard sell in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where many lawmakers campaigned on a pledge to reduce the deficit. The president's speech came just hours after House Republicans passed a symbolic resolution calling for cutting nonsecurity discretionary spending to 2008 levels.
The government is operating at spending levels set for the 2010 fiscal year under a continuing resolution that expires on March 4. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is crafting a spending bill for the remainder of the current fiscal year that he says would make the deepest spending cuts in the nation's history.
Rich Williams, higher-education advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, says that rolling back federal spending to 2008 levels would have "grave consequences" for the Pell Grant program, resulting in cuts of $1,500 for the neediest students.
As expected, the president focused his remarks on jobs and the economy, calling for bold action to spur job growth. But he also called for passage of legislation like the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship and student aid for undocumented students, and he urged colleges to welcome military recruiters and ROTC back to their campuses in the wake of the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which had barred gay Americans from openly serving in the military. "It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past," he said. "It is time to move forward as one nation."
President Obama also touted his success in ending student-loan subsidies to banks, and he called on Congress to make permanent a tuition tax credit worth $10,000 over four years. He also reiterated his goal for the nation to lead the world in college-completion rates by 2020.
At least one college student was on hand for the president's speech. Daniel Hernandez, a University of Arizona student who administered first aid to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in Tucson this month, sat with the first lady, Michelle Obama, during the address.
The president made no mention of the Education Department's proposed "gainful employment" rules, which could cut off federal student aid to programs in which students have high debt burdens and low repayment rates. But one major player from that controversial sector still got some airtime last night. The Apollo Group, parent corporation of the University of Phoenix, bought spots on NBC and ABC for time right after the president's speech to show two ads, one describing the university as an innovator in education and another featuring the university's teacher-education programs.