by Laura K. Garrison
|For those who weren’t playing along last night.
Last night, President Obama delivered the State of the Union address to a crowded House Chambers. A year into his second term, and a difficult year at that (troubled roll-out of Obamacare, government shutdown, failed legislation in gun control, immigration reform, etc.), the President delivered a typically optimistic speech, heavy with the American exceptionalism and can-do spirit one expects from a State of the Union address. While there were several fun quips in the middle, the speech got off to a serious start and ended on a heartfelt, emotional note. You can read and watch the address here, and check out our notes below.
President Obama began his address by remarking on what people around the country did today – a teacher, an entrepreneur, an autoworker, a farmer, a rural doctor – wholesome images of Americans hard at work. It wasn’t the most engaging opening, but it’s of note that he started off with the teacher who “spent extra time with a student who needed it and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.” Education would be a recurring theme in the President’s speech, and I think it speaks volumes that he chose this, rather than something related to the economy, as his leading image.
Next came the good news: “the lowest unemployment rate in over five years, a rebounding housing market, a manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s, more oil produced…at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years, our deficits cut by more than half; and for the first time…in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.” All in all, 2013 was our “breakthrough year.” This year, the President says, will be our “year of action.”
Though he promised to work with Congress, the President also made clear that he would search for ways to go around them “whenever and wherever I can” if they do not cooperate. The President mentioned the College Opportunity Summit, which DSpar attended, to work on making college education a reality for all students. The President then received a thumbs up from Speaker Boehner after a reference to his humble beginnings as a barkeep’s son. Boehner sat stone-faced the rest of the night.
Obama went on to support tax code reform to benefit companies that insource jobs back to the United States. Money saved from this reform would go towards improving infrastructure and creating more jobs. He announced his unwavering support for small businesses and technological innovation and encouraged Congress to undo cuts to research.
“Listen, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines; and neither, neither should we. We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. This is an edge America cannot surrender.”
Energy and the Environment
While Obama proudly declared that his “all of the above” energy plan is working to make energy independence a reality, he focused primarily on natural gas. While a step-up from foreign oil, natural gas is not always “extracted safely,” i.e.fracking. He mentioned solar power and asserted that tax reform must prevent Big Oil from receiving $4 billion a year, so that this money can be invested in alternative fuel sources. And, to restate what we already know, the President made clear that climate change is indeed real.
“But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
Immigration, Job Training, and Unemployment
The President encouraged the House to pass immigration reform and touted the benefits of doing so, including economic growth and reduced deficits. He assigned Vice President Joe Biden to the task of creating job training programs, and he admonished Congress for allowing 1.6 million people to lose their unemployment insurance.
“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. Let’s get it done. It’s time.”
President Obama named student loan reform, the highest number of college degrees ever awarded, and Race to the Top among America’s achievements in education. For the second year in a row, however, Obama asked that Congress work with states to provide universal pre-K programs for all children. Students across the country are well on their way to receiving high-speed internet, partnerships between high schools, colleges, and employers, and continued reforms of student loan debt, including allowing monthly payments capped at ten percent of income.
“Now, some of this change is hard. It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test. But it is worth it — and it is working.”
Another cause near and dear to Barnard, the President listed equal pay for equal work and flexible workplace policies for parents as among his top priorities for women. This was naturally met with a standing ovation from many members of Congress, especially women.
“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.”
Obama congratulated the five states that raised minimum wage and asked Congress to do the same.
He gave a shout-out to Costco, the wholesale retailer known for its higher wages and good employment policies. President Obama announced that he would be putting forth an executive order so that federal contractors pay federally-funded employees at least $10.10 an hour. He acknowledged that the country’s minimum wage is almost twenty percent less than when Ronald Reagan took office. He mentioned Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller whose bill will raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
“It’s easy to remember: 10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise. Give ‘em a raise.”
Despite the early woes of Obamacare, the President stood by his landmark legislation. Obama victoriously proclaimed that 3 million young adults now have coverage with their parents’ plan, 9 million have enrolled in some form of health insurance, and no one will ever lose or be denied healthcare due to a pre-existing condition or simply being a woman. He addressed Republicans in the House directly, reminding them that attempting to repeal Obamacare over forty times is not a productive use of session. President Obama then asked that each American encourage a friend to get insured before March 31st.
“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…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.”
Voting and Gun Rights
Though the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act last summer, the President announced that a bipartisan commission was working to ensure that all Americans can vote without more than a half-hour wait. Sadly, Obama only mentioned gun control in passing, vowing to keep working to prevent “tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters and our shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.” He made no concrete statement as to how he plans to do this.
“It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy.”
Foreign Policy and the Military
President Obama reminded the country that all troops are out of Iraq, and those in Afghanistan are scheduled to leave by the end of the year, effectively ending America’s longest war. He warned against the threat of al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Mali and proclaimed American support for the Syrian opposition that “rejects…terrorist networks.” Obama stated his wishes to move away from “permanent war footing,” acknowledging needed limits to drone warfare and government surveillance. Returning to one of his early campaign promises, the President announced his intent to push for the closing of Guantanamo Bay. The highlight of foreign policy was Iran: he spoke of the negotiations to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and asserted that any attempt by Congress to create new sanctions would be vetoed.
The President’s goals for veterans include healthcare (and mental healthcare) and job training. Here, Obama told the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg who, on his tenth deployment, was severely injured by a roadside bomb. As he told Cory’s inspirational story of pain and recovery, tears welled in my eyes. This is where the President truly hit his stride, and I can’t think of a better person to honor at the State of the Union.
“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.”
Laura K. Garrison is a junior at Barnard and Editor in Chief of
The Nine Ways of Knowing.
Image courtesy of the AAUW.