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Saturday, January 24, 2015

2015 State of the Union: "...Imagine if we did something different..."

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Typically the president uses the State of the Union to outline their political agenda for the year as well as their vision for the nation.  The president makes his address not just to both chambers of Congress but also to the players of national government who are in attendance – members of the President’s cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Supreme Court justices.  The State of the Union provides an annual opportunity to identify those critical political issues as the national priorities. Yet despite heavy losses suffered by the Democrats in the 2014 mid-terms, President Obama appeared before the nation apparently bolstered by recent reports of higher approval ratings.  Just a few days ago President Obama delivered his sixth State of the  Union address where he outlined the accomplishments and achievements of his administration, “…Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.”
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Appearing assertive at times, President Obama challenged House and Senate Republicans on policy items such as tax hikes on the wealthy and raising the minimum wage while issuing threats of presidential veto. The president focused on the economy and what he termed as “middle-class economics”.  The President explained: “…That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success – we want everyone to contribute to our success. So what does middle-class economics require in our time?  President Obama continues, “First – middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
The president actually had a pretty short wish list that includes proposals to provide millions of workers a week of paid sick leave, lower community college tuition to zero, and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure while producing jobs.  “We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto,” asserted President Obama.  

Internationally, the president discussed trade agreements, identified climate change as the “greatest challenge”, mentioned the efforts to fight an Ebola pandemic, renewed his six year old promise to close Guantanamo Bay - again, and repeated his proposed changes to an antiquated 50 year old ineffective policy towards Cuba. But this year’s state of the union address was different – there was a different feel.  The president admitted as much when he said this year there will be no checklist – his submission of the budget will suffice. There were no catchy slogans this year where last year, 2014 was to be known as the Year of Action symbolized by presidential veto and executive orders.  

The truth is that while the president is showing higher approval ratings – the critical question will be whether the higher ratings are enough to enable President Obama steer the political narrative that will inevitably drive the national debate. Consider for a moment on the heels of devastating losses in the 2014 elections, the president has now entered the lame duck years of his presidency, and he will now be facing Republican majorities in both chambers on Congress – the House and the Senate. Meanwhile the Republican Party's agenda has set their sights on repealing the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), anti-abortion bills, and of course, tax cuts. The president will be hard pressed to move his agenda forward in this hostile political climate where Republicans are empowered on the national and state level.  "...Imagine if we did something different...” the president asks.  

But the significance of the president’s state of the union address is not so much about what was discussed but what was not discussed – or discussed enough. Issues such as income inequality, K-12 education, criminal justice reform and policing quickly comes to mind. Disturbing was the president’s stance on advocating for political prisoners abroad while refusing to acknowledge America’s political prisoners.  Although, the president has proposed transformative changes for community colleges he remains muted on K-12 education.  The president’s plan to address increasing income inequality appears to be based on his proposal to raise taxes on the high income earners and place fees on the richest financial institutions and then redistribute the money to pay for free community college tuition, and tax credits targeted for the middle class – “middle-class economics” says the president. President Obama never mentioned the poor or poverty – not even once during the nearly 60 minute speech. But what about the millions who have not reached middle class status? Or the dim prospects of these bills passing through a Republican controlled Congress? Certainly the political drama will be played out before the national stage over the next two years for all to witness – will the president’s pragmatism get bipartisan support? What will be the president’s legacy?
     
But what about criminal justice reform in the aftermath of the visceral public response to violent policing? President Obama indeed mentioned the need for criminal justice reform but in light of the world wide protests raising the public consciousness about policing – the president failed to cast his spotlight by not providing details as to what criminal justice reform would look like. He even refused to relent to the obvious symbolism to having the parents of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, and the wife of Eric Garner in attendance as his guests: “…We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift,” President Obama went on to say, “Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.” The president’s lack of detail regarding his idea for criminal justice reform is particularly disappointing considering  the Justice Department's recent refusal to federally charge police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.