In case you missed it, President Obama gave his final State of the Union address on January 12, 2016. He started out by joking that he would keep it short for those who need to get back to Iowa and thanking Speaker Ryan for his work, then launched into a commanding speech in which he let loose a litany of criticisms, including the Republican presidential candidates, the increasing fear and hate amongst Americans, and partisan politics. As with his 2008 presidential run, his words were rooted in hope and change and he ended with a discussion of exactly why America is exceptional and how we, the American people, leave him hopeful.
We have done it before (civil rights) and we have always had retractors who incited fear, but “each time we overcame those fears.” It is in the spirit of change that we make progress. It’s how we reformed healthcare, reinvented energy sector, delivered more care to our veterans, and passed marriage equality. (Note: veterans stood to applaud). Change is made when we make choices – will we respond with fear and turn inward and against each other?
Four Big Questions
1. How does everyone get a fair shot in this economy?
We have the “strongest, most durable economy in the world.” Cited private sector job creation, low unemployment, progress in the auto industry, manufacturing surge – all while cutting deficits by 75%. “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction” but the economy is changing. Technology replaces workers in more places than just the assembly line. Even those with jobs have a harder time getting out of poverty, retiring, finding jobs, etc. These trends “offend our uniquely American belief that everyone who works hard should get a fair shot.”
We agree that “real opportunity” requires that we get the education and training we need (cited progress in graduation rates). We need to offer Pre-K for all. We should “recruit and support more great teachers.” We “have to make college affordable for every American.” We reduced payments to 10% of income, but we need to cut costs and offer 2 free years of community college for certain students.
Joked that the only people in America who will work the same job for 30 years with health and retirement benefits are “sitting in this chamber.” Americans shouldn’t lose what they worked hard to build – we should strengthen Social Security. You should be able to take your savings with you when you shift jobs or get laid off (acknowledged there won’t be an agreement on healthcare anytime soon). The system can’t be rigged – the Americans need to make a choice about the role of government. “I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed; there is red tape that needs to be cut.” (When discussing corporate profits, the camera was on Bernie Sanders.) Workers need more of a voice, not less.
- “Food stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.”
- “Immigrants are not the princpal reason that wages haven’t gotten up, those decisions are made in the board rooms.”
2. How do we make technology work for us, not against us (specifically with climate change?)
When the Russians launched Sputnik, we didn’t deny it was up there – we launched a space program and ended up walking on the moon. “America is Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers, and George Washington Carver… Every immigrant and entrepreneur… racing to shape a better future.” Announced a new national effort to cure cancer and put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of Mission Control because “medical research is critical” and we need the “same type of commitment” to energy – if you want to debate climate change, have at it but you’ll be very lonely (paraphrased). We have made incredible progress and our kids and grandkids deserve better. Even the Tea Party and environmentalists have agreed on some measures.
- “America is Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers, and George Washington Carver… Every immigrant and entrepreneur… racing to shape a better future.”
3. How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
We are the most powerful nation on Earth and any talk to the contrary is “hot air.” We spend more on our military, our troops are the best, and “people don’t look to Moscow or Beijing to lead – they call us.” Failing states are the threat, not the idea of some “looming superpower.” Discussed China’s economic transitions, the Middle East, Russia’s flowing money to Ukraine and Syria, and pointed out that to protect the American people and going after terrorist networks.
Specifically Al Quaeda and ISIL – “we have to take them out.” Criticized the claim that this is World War III as helping them out. “They do not threaten our national existence – that’s the story ISIL wants to tell and that’s the type of propaganda” they use. “We don’t need to build them up to show we’re serious.” We need to call them what they are – “killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.” With or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the lessons Osama bin Laden and other terrorists “When you come after Americans, we come after you…. We have long memories and our reach has no limits.” We need to be more than “tough talk” because calls for carpet bombing “doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
We will work alone if we must but we want to work with others, like we are with Iran and Syria and how we “stamped out” Ebola. Calls for approval of Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Our choice is not to ignore the world or occupy and rebuild every “unravelling” society – “leadership means a wise application of military power and rallying the world around causes” that are worth it. Gave several examples of how helping others helps ourselves. Any policy that targets based on race or religion has to go. “This is not a matter of political correctness, this is a matter of just understanding what it is that makes us strong – the world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect everything.” Quoted the Pope: “To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place,” and indirectly went after Trump by saying that targeting Muslims isn’t “telling it like it is.”
- “When you come after Americans, we come after you…. We have long memories and our reach has no limits.”
- “When we target Muslims, we’re not “telling it like it is, it’s just wrong – it diminishes us in the eye of the world…. It betrays who we are as a country.”
4. How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, not worst?
Democracy requires “basic bonds of trust between its citizens.” We need “rational, constructive” debates and need “better politics.” Democracy doesn’t work if everyone who “disagrees with us is motivated by malice.” “Democracy grinds to a halt” without compromise (camera focused on Kim Davis). “If we want a better politics….we have to change the system.” We need to end gerrymandering, address money in politics, make it easier to vote, and it depends on the American people – that’s what means by “A government of, by, and for the People.” “If we give up now then we forsake a better future” because the rich and powerful will gain greater control. We will not be the envy of the world if we go down a path of limiting voting rights and other backwards progress.
The American people need to vote, speak out, and “stand up for others, especially the weak… and vulnerable.” “We are only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.” We need to be Americans first, not Blacks or Latinos, Republicans or Democrats, gay or straight. President Obama then painted a story of Americans who are doing the good work, from the teachers who come in early and buy their own supplies to the boss who gives their workers fair wages to the police officer treating everyone with respect to the nurse who tends to the soldier who gave up everything. Americans are “Clear eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic… That’s what makes me so hopeful about the future.”
- “We are only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”
- “I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.”
Summary of Proposals
- Recruit and support great teachers
- Make college affordable both in payments and in costs
- Understand that Americans will work more than one job and strengthen Social Security and Medicare
- Wage insurance for the unemployed
- Expand tax cuts for low-income workers with no children
- National effort to cure cancer
- Continue efforts to shut down prison at Guantanamo