On 28 January, President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address. His hour-long speech focused mainly on reaffirming the possibility of the American Dream. Emphasising the victories of his past year in office and focusing on personal stories, Obama painted a positive picture of the state of America.
But throughout the address he threw backhanded jabs at Congress for everything from shutting down the United States government back in October to refusing to support gun control in the face of tragedies like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. While he did touch on many different topics, he often prioritised rhetoric over concrete policy initiatives. For example, he mentioned only in passing such important issues as immigration reform and the fight for equal pay. And while he did address some of the controversies that have plagued his second term, he did not speak long on either.
He began by focusing on the declining unemployment rate in America, which is accompanied by a rebounding house market and a growing manufacturing sector. While America has recently reclaimed its position as the best country in which to invest (it was formerly China), President Obama did speak on the income inequality that has become synonymous with Wall Street and the finance industry in general.
The whole speech was something of a plug for the revitalised American Dream, even though the president acknowledged that the wealthiest Americans continue to grow richer while upward mobility for the rest of the country has stalled. In a surprising display of bipartisan goodwill, Obama used Boehner as an example of someone who has fulfilled the Dream, beginning life as the son of a barkeep and ending up as one of the country’s most powerful politicians. Such mobility is now something of a dream gone by, though Obama obviously hopes to restore it.
A significant part of the speech was devoted to the development of a cleaner energy economy. New commitments to natural gas and solar energy ensure that America is simultaneously lessening its dependence on foreign oil and creating more jobs for those at home. The president was adamant in affirming the reality of climate change, which in the past has proven contentious within American party politics.
After glossing over immigration reform and calling upon Congress to renew unemployment insurance, the president turned to the education system. At last year’s State of the Union, he called for an ambitious preschool-for-everyone program.
This year, acknowledging the realistic challenges of such a proposal as well as to Congress’ unwillingness to work with him, Obama switched gears.
While still calling for access to high quality early education, the president instead focused on pre-K programmes, for which many states have already increased funding on their own. He also proposed capping student loan debt, a significant problem for young adults dealing with a challenging job market and education costs that have been soaring for the past couple of decades.
He mentioned the wage gap; right now, American women earn only $0.77 for every $1 a man earns for the same job. Though Obama did not propose any specific way to combat this problem, he did provide a clear plan for raising the minimum wage. Lamenting the fact that many Americans work full-time and still live in poverty, he called for a minimum wage that is also a living wage: $10.10 per hour, instead of the current $7.25.
He proposed a new way for Americans to prepare for retirement through a program called myRA. Then he addressed the Affordable Care Act, the new healthcare law often called Obamacare. He called out the 40 Republican congressmen and women who voted to repeal the act, even though it had already taken effect and was making strides by preventing health insurers from denying or revoking coverage because of preexisting conditions. He did not address the many glitches that have accompanied the act’s implementation.
Before moving onto gun control he mentioned the Voting Rights Act, which has been in place since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Last summer, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of weakening a key clause of the Act in favor of states’ rights. As a result, minorities have lost important federal protection of their voting rights in states that have a long history of disenfranchising them.
A passing mention of the urgent need for gun control in America preceded a military update. He said that the war in Afghanistan will be finished before the year’s end. He also reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism, while committing to limitations on drones and surveillance (both at home and abroad). Obama also called for the closing of Guantanamo Bay, an important component of his presidential campaign platform in 2008.
He lauded the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and pledged America’s dedication to the international effort to advocate on behalf of the Syrian people. The president then spoke in support of both Israel and Palestine in their shared conflict before moving on to Iran.
He touted the rollbacks on the Iranian nuclear program, enabled by diplomatic negotiations, while still remaining “clear-eyed” about the country’s support of terrorists and the mistrust that still exists between Iran and America. The president was clear in discouraging any congressional call for sanctions against Iran, which would derail the current negotiations; he said he would veto any such proposal to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.
Obama finished his address with the story of Cory Remsburg, a staff sergeant who on his tenth deployment was nearly killed by a roadside bomb. He has spent the past four years in recovery. The president said Remsburg is a reminder that “America never comes easy” and that it is a constant battle to protect and preserve democracy. Remsburg received a long standing ovation, and his story was the most poignant part of the evening.
After Obama finished speaking, the Republican party responded officially with a ten-minute speech delivered by the House Republican conference chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. Like the president, she spoke of the continued power and possibility of the American Dream. However, she advocated for a vision that “empowers [the American people], not the government” and “champions a free market and trusts people to make their own decisions”.
Where the president spoke of income equality, she focused on opportunity equality. (Though many would say the two are one and the same.) While the “president’s policies make Americans’ lives harder”, she said, the Republican party plans to close this gap, empower Americans, and curb government. Though she made only vague promises about her party’s plan to lower taxes and provide cheaper healthcare, she did propose a path to immigration reform, beginning with the securing of American borders. She ended the GOP’s response with a prayer.
This State of the Union comes on the heels of a tumultuous year, one that saw much partisan inefficiency in Washington, D.C. While neither the president nor Rodgers offered an olive branch to the other side, perhaps 2014 will at least see progress in that the government manages to stay operating for the entire 12 months. One down…
Photos: Wikimedia Commons