Late Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union address. His speech aimed to not only outline the White House’s 2015 legislative agenda, but evoke a sense of unity amongst the American people and a divided government. Obama justified his call to focus on the middle class by citing key American values and took a fervent approach to convince the American public as well as the Republican-dominated congressional audience that middle-class economics has and will continue to work.
Although the president spent a great portion of the address expressing his hopes for near-future bipartisanship, his threats to veto any opposing legislation seemed to contradict his collaborative aspirations. Ironically—as the address spread itself across overlying themes of leadership, optimism and unity—I felt the address epitomized the obstinate mood of current politics.
To open the address, President Obama prompted listeners to reflect on America’s trials and triumphs since the turn of the century. Over the last 15 years, America has faced great adversity in the form of terrorism, war and a merciless recession. With economic growth and job creation accelerating at its fastest pace since 1999 and unemployment rates sitting lower than those in 2008, the president began with a fast paced success story to assert that “The State of the Union is strong.”
“At this moment—with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” the president said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.”
Redirecting his focus from the past to future, President Obama then dove into the crux of his political platform: middle-class economics. In an effort to illustrate the success of his economic approach, the president announced that families were saving an average of $750 at the pump, math and reading scores are hitting record highs and access to health coverage has become more readily available.
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest growing economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years,” Obama said. “So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works.”
Although he argued that his platform—aiming to provide working families with financial security and a higher education as well as invest in strong economic infrastructure—has achieved great success over the course of his presidential terms, President Obama maintained that with economic change, economic policy must, too, continue re-inventing itself.
The 2016 budget, which Obama will present to Congress in a few weeks, includes proposals such as lowering the taxes of working families and tax cuts for more affordable childcare in low-income and middle-class families. The president also proposed paid sick leave, equal pay for women, increased minimum wage, free community college education, investment in infrastructure and tax hikes on wealthy couples and billion dollar corporations. Obama also suggested tax code reform to get rid of loopholes and giveaways. The president expressed his hope that Congress will authorize the use of force against ISIL, combat climate change, continue medical outreach to West Africa, continue investment in various research, meet the threat of cyber attacks, reform immigration policy and settle trade agreements with major Asian economies and the EU.
The president later vowed his willingness to work with the Republican party:
“And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger,” he said.
With Republicans occupying 246 seats in the House and 54 seats in the Senate, the president took a surprisingly aggressive approach to explaining his congressionally opposed proposal. Obama set the record for how many times a veto threat was mentioned in a State of the Union address and the president’s unwavering stance on most policies seemed to contradict his expression of hope to work and negotiate with the Republican party.
“Understand— better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine,” President Obama said. “A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”
When we consider that the president is in his second term and outnumbered by Republican legislative authority, I feel that his unwillingness to negotiate his terms is perplexing and counterproductive. Similarly, without a presidential victory and gaining control of Congress in an election cycle that favored conservative turnout, the Republican mandate may, too, not be as strong as they believe. Though the president addressed values that both parties can agree on and Republicans have shown a willingness to support the president in some of his mentioned endeavors, both Republicans and Democrats show a strong reluctance to find common ground and exemplify leadership.
In an address that was thematically designed to unify a skeptical nation and a torn government, I feel that the president’s threats of veto and a clear unwillingness to budge on certain—and quite frankly— impassable issues derailed these efforts. Mention of American values like leadership: “leading—always—with the example of our values” or leadership “without bluster,” prompted most of us to consider what it means to lead.
Early on in the address, the president asked:
“Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another—or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?”
At this point, it is hard to say. We can only hope for the latter.
Photo via whitehouse.gov