President Obama gave us a surprisingly hopeful State of the Union address tonight. I say surprising because he has faced intractable opposition from a GOP determined to undermine his every move.
Indeed, both houses of Congress have demonstrated a keen desire to toil less on “prosperity [that] is widely shared,” as the president proffered tonight, but rather to put their shoulder to more of the same agenda-based roadblocks. Speaker of the House John Boehner and his ilk seem less concerned with creating strong communities and more concerned with strategically stirring up respective base support and re-election fund-raising. To wit, just hours before tonight’s SOTU (and days after the 41st anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision), House Republicans successfully passed HR 7, or the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”
Feeling a sense of deja vu? Call it selective memory relative to a mid-season election cycle. Apparently, for Boehner’s army, the best tricks are not even that old tricks. This one is coming straight from 2011 with a bill called … wait for it … “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.” Yeesh. They don’t even give it a fancy new name! If you recall, that act got all boondoggled when not only reproductive rights were attacked but the very definition of rape was going to be rewritten!
But I digress. We’re not here to talk about GOP Tom-foolery. We’re here to talk about Obama’s State of the Union. (Incidentally, I live-tweeted during the SOTU and you can read all those tweets here.) Obama covered all the main points — healthcare, jobs, unemployment, education, immigration, the wage gap, the minimum wage, voter rights (in passing), the environment by way of gas/oil, and of course, the military/war machine with a pledge to do right by our troops when they return home. One area that was really lacking? A real stance on LGBT rights. Certainly more than a veiled reference to Russia’s anti-gay laws with the winter Olympics starting next week. Another area really lacking? Women’s reproductive rights! And I was surprised that Obama didn’t mention the initiative against sexual assault he announced last week. (See full transcript of the SOTU here.)
That’s a lot. Here’s what stood out to me:
Call him Action Obama: At several points in his speech, the president said unequivocally that he will act alone when possible to expedite important work.
“So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Congress got bitch-slapped: Perhaps Obama is feeling inspired by the Anger Translator Luther character on Key and Peele but the real Obama repeatedly took jabs at the folks in Congress who keep getting in the way of his grand plans.
“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress. For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate — one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people.”
It’s about JOBS: Obama stressed several aspects of the economy, including creating incentives to keep jobs from being exported, more job training, and raising the minimum wage:
“Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. … To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too. In the coming weeks I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.”
It’s about FAIR PAY: Obama spoke very little about so-called “women’s issues” except a clear message that it is not only time for the wage gap to disappear, but it is a black eye on our reputation as a leader in the world:
“You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.
Women deserve equal pay for equal work.
You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode. This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”
We’re long overdue to reform immigration policy:
“[I]f we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. (Cheers, applause.) Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year. (Cheers, applause.) Let’s get it done. It’s time.”
We aren’t going to get anywhere if we don’t start investing in education, especially pre-K education (which, incidentally, has a seven-fold return on investment):
“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education. (Applause.) Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. And as a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.
But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-k funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K that they need. (Applause.) It is right for America. We need to get this done.”
It’s time for some smart talk about gun violence:
“Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day. I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say ‘we are not afraid,’ and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters and our shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook”
And Obama has just about had it with your belly-aching about the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare):
“Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.
The first 40 were plenty. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
It took him almost the entire length of the speech, but Obama did get to mentioning the need for better care for troops once they return home, including job placement and mental health services. I know a lot of folks are going to be talking about Cory Remsburg, whose story was touching. But as touching as it was, I would rather have heard about concrete examples of how we’re going to do better by our veterans. In the most recent homeless census (this month), it is estimated that 12 percent of the homeless are veterans, most from the Vietnam war. And, as The Daily Show just did an excellent job of skewering, most Vietnam vets are denied mental health services for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of bureaucracy. That has got to end. Period.
“My fellow Americans — my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.
But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.
The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach.