With a combination of determination and optimism, President Obama reset his presidency as he delivered his State of Union address to the nation. Although his agenda was no less ambitious, the president, who sought to transform Washington through bipartisanship and civility, declared that he will exercise executive authority, if necessary, to create “new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”
To move his policies forward and put a year of setbacks behind him, he declared that he will take unilateral action by issuing executive orders to circumvent gridlock on Capitol Hill and avoid the type of partisan warfare that shut down the government last fall. In the opening minutes of his 65-minute speech, he told congressional members in the House chamber: “I am eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. 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.”
After sharing that his policies over the past five years had placed the country on the right track – “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… our deficits cut by more than half” – he addressed concerns of an American public that, for the most part, hasn’t felt uplifted by economic recovery. In fact, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 63% of Americans felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction.
During his speech, he responded to the national mood, recognizing that “even in the midst of this recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead…and too many still aren’t working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends.”
Obama proposed a host of domestic initiatives focused on job creation, income inequality, educational opportunities and immigration reform, among others. His progressive slate offered much for core supporters – minorities, women and the LGBT population – as well as congressional Democrats to embrace. They included the following:
Increasing the minimum wage through executive Order to $10.10 for federal contract workers. The President will also continue to urge Congress to raise the rate across the nation.
Creating “myRA” as a new starter vehicle to help millions save for retirement. Obama plans to take executive action to make a simple, safe and affordable retirement account available through employers and Roth IRA accounts. Like savings bonds, it would be backed by the federal government
Launching four new manufacturing institutes this year. So American manufacturers can continue to add jobs, he will issue executive orders to develop these new facilities.
Reviewing federal training programs to help workers gain skills for available positions. The President announced that Vice President Biden will lead the effort to evaluate the federal job-training system to ensure programs are driven by the needs of employers and, in turn, enable workers to secure well-paying jobs. The administration will seek to create partnerships with community colleges and businesses as a means of implementation.
Fostering job creation by strengthening small business. The administration plans to help small businesses gain greater access to capital and capabilities needed to grow companies and hire more workers. Expanding upon such legislation as the JOBS Act and the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, the new measures will focus on simplifying taxes and investing in entrepreneurship education.
Fixing a “broken immigration system.” The president proposes to bolster border security, crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers and provide an “earned” path to citizenship for immigrants who pay a fine and taxes, learn English and pass a background check. The Senate has already passed legislation largely consistent with the administration’s plan. Next step; negotiating with House leaders.
The president also shared policies that promote workplace fairness and equality for women and the LGBT community; encourage corporate CEOs to hire the long-term unemployed; develop alliances with business leaders, community colleges, local officials and labor leaders to increase the number of innovative apprenticeships; and connect 20 million students in 15,000 schools to next-generation broadband and wireless technology within five years through philanthropic partnerships with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon.
In a less antagonistic, more personalized presentation of the official GOP response than in previous years, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said the president’s policies “are making people’s lives harder” and that his administration’s big government approach doesn’t work. And before Obama’s address House Speaker John Boehner rebuked executive action, telling reporters that “we have a Constitution. We abide by it. If he tries to ignore it, he’s going to run into a brick wall.”
The tenor of the president’s speech was forceful but not combative as he stressed moving forward with his “year of action.” He clearly communicated that he still has much work to do and talk of the 2016 presidential election – a topic that has been occupying the focus of political pundits and prognosticators – is way premature. The contest that is far more pressing, however, is the 2014 mid-term elections and Obama is aware that support from Democrats will be determined based on how his proposals impact their political fortunes. In fact, the president was recently criticized by the Congressional Black Caucus for the lack of African American nominees in his federal judicial selections. The GOP, on the other hand, will continue to engage in maneuvers that will position the party to keep control of the House and take over the Senate.
Now that the president’s message has been delivered, Team Obama is traveling across the country selling his proposals. Today, Obama visits a Costco wholesale outlet in Lanham, Maryland to encourage employers to voluntarily raise the minimum wage and the United States Steel Corp. Irvin Plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania to offer details on his retirement plan. And Vice President Biden travels to Rochester, New York to discuss education and job-driven training at Monroe Community College.
In foreign policy, Obama used his speech to discuss the importance of “American diplomacy backed by pressure,” especially as it relates to Iran halting progress of its nuclear program: “If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today. ” Moreover, he framed such issues as the protection of voting rights, eradication of gun violence and military service to make the point about the value of American citizenship.
The longest and loudest standing ovation came when he identified Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg as an inspirational example of the sacrifice and tenacity needed to strengthen the nation. Remsburg had been brain damaged and partly paralyzed when he was ravaged by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan during his 10th military deployment.
“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… 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 toward tomorrow — I know it is within our reach. “