The stagnant state of the State of the Union address

President Obama speaking at the State of the Union Address.

US President Barack Obama hit several high points in his hour-long State of the Union speech, rallying the crowd to drive his points home, and he seemed more focused now than four years ago.  It’s time, as his promises seem to indicate, to roll up his sleeves and get down to work.  With only four years remaining, Obama laid out an ambitious list of goals, encompassing everything from the war in Afghanistan to education reform.  The rhetoric became tiring and clichéd at times, but digging past it, Obama addressed numerous important topics addressed.  Here’s a rundown of his new policies, and my take on what they mean for America.
Economic Growth
Obama, predictably, started off his speech on a positive note, mentioning the 6 million new jobs created in the past four years, heightened rates of American oil and car production, and improved housing and stock markets.  And then he stated the obvious, that there is a ton of work necessary in coming years to repair and restore the ailing economy.  The major upcoming problem is the sequestration, which is a series of automatic federal budget cuts to everything from education to the energy sector. Economists predict that it will have a devastating effect on the US economy, and time is running out to find an alternative.  Obama hopes to remedy the situation by a combination of raised taxes on the upper class and spending cuts (noting that Congress is over halfway towards finding the $4 trillion needed to be slashed in spending in the federal budget).  He also spoke of closing existing tax loopholes and deductions in order to garner more federal revenue.  However, bringing together a divided Congress to agree to his proposal is unlikely, especially in the shrinking timeframe remaining, with the sequestration due to start on March 1. Obama hopes to raise the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.  This will certainly be of assistance to impoverished families, though it still only yields a salary of $18,720 per person (if he or she is working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year).
Obama covered the standard areas for the defense portions of his speech.  He plans on winding down the war in Afghanistan (he says by the end of next year all troops will be home).  He also proposed a new strategy for US military intervention, which is likely to be popular with a war-weary populace.  Obama asked for countries to provide for their own security and track down terrorists, while still receiving some American aid.  This is a smart move, both politically and militarily, though not particularly innovative, seeing as it has been in practice for some time in certain countries.
When his speech came to more controversial measures however, Obama glossed over them entirely.  He gave some vague details about strengthening US control over Iran and North Korea, but left the real question of whether the US should use diplomatic, economic, or military means, unanswered.  He briefly stated his desire for clearer legal framework in counter-terrorism efforts, but did not directly address any of these measures (for example: drones and so-called “enhanced interrogation methods”).  The US should “keep pressure” on Assad’s regime in Syria, but Obama offered no further detail into whether – or how – he plans to intervene in a civil war that has already slaughtered thousands of civilians.
Some portions of Obama’s speech were slightly more innovative, specifically his discussion of cyberterrorism and gays in the military.  The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy has been repealed, but there is plenty of policy alteration ahead to make sure gays get the same spousal rights and treatment as their straight counterparts.  His mention of increased measures against cyberterrorism also merits further examination.  Cyber-warfare is an often overlooked subject which could have a devastating effect on our country.  Think about how much of the world now run by computer systems: nuclear facilities, power grids, factories; the list goes on and on.  It is terrifying to think of what could happen if any of these important aspects of society were shut down by a hacker.  That is the risk involved with threats of cyberterrorism, which will only continue to become more sophisticated as time wears on.


Obama has plans to bring down expenses of Medicare by raising premiums for more wealthy recipients and reducing payments for prescription drugs.  However, he goes into very few specifics beyond this.  Obama seemed to not want to get bogged down in a fight over his controversial Obamacare and other reforms, and chose to talk up scientific innovation instead.  He made the bold promise that the US can produce an AIDS-free generation if more funds are invested.  This initially sounded like wishful thinking, but after doing a little research, there has certainly been buzz around the idea for some time.  By focusing on vaccines, removing the stigma on the disease, and giving more citizens access to treatment for HIV (which leads to AIDS), the possibility is definitely out there.  Whether Obama will be able to invest enough money to fully realize this vision is unlikely.  However, just knowing there may one day be a solution to this epidemic gave his speech a rare visionary moment among the more mundane policies being laid out.
Climate Change
Climate change is one of those controversial topics that really shouldn’t be.  Perhaps this is because of the scientific debate over whether it even exists (all mainstream science says yes, it does) or the big-oil interests at play, but there has always been a disagreement over what – if anything- should be done.  Obama’s plan to combat climate change acknowledged the different groups at play, and he tried to fall somewhere in the middle in the hopes of not angering either side.  On one hand, he proposed federal backing for states that have less energy waste, and wants America to focus more on alternative energy such as solar and wind.  But at the same time, he promised more oil and gas permits, and heralded domestic oil production as a source of job growth and economic stability.  Obama seems to be aware of the balance between saving the economy and saving the environment.  So while he highlighted the subject of climate change, he still accepts a more pragmatic, business-oriented viewpoint for the time being.
Unfortunately, education reform has always taken a backseat to other issues in politicians’ objectives.  This is despite the fact that it is going to be one of the most important topics in the future, since a country with inadequately prepared students cannot have a competitive workforce in the global economy.   I was happy that Obama took a significant amount of time to actually discuss the issue, but sadly, he tiptoed around the truly controversial issues.  Instead, the president brought up early childhood education, which I couldn’t help but feel was picked because it’s so innocent in nature.  Who’s really going to argue about sending cute little toddlers to preschool?  Doing so is investing in their future, Obama claimed, which I somewhat agree with (my preschool papier-mâché sculptures have become the stuff of legend).  In all seriousness, though, what’s the point of building a solid foundation for kids if the president is unwilling to discuss fixing the rest of their education?
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Obama – he does try to mention some practical solutions to education.  Making college more affordable, opening more technical high schools, and improving STEM programs are all fundamental to a stronger economy.  I know vocational schools and community colleges have a certain negative reputation for some people, but for others, they offer a clear career path and an opportunity for a stable job.  Some schools have partnered up with tech companies, so when students graduate, they can immediately enter into good jobs in a growing business.  There are an anticipated two million openings in STEM fields by 2018, according to the US Department of Labor, but there’s a serious shortage of people to fill them.  Companies actually will have to bring in workers from overseas to meet the demand, which is hardly a model for economic prosperity in the US.  This brings me to the next topic Obama addressed: immigration.
Immigration has long been a contentious issue in America because of the inherent moral gray area surrounding it.  Do you allow illegal immigrants to bypass those legally applying for admittance to the US?  But on the other hand, is it truly just to send young immigrants back to a country they might not even remember?  The human cost of deportation is enormous, and it is here that there has long been dispute about the right course of action.  Obama’s plan attempts to take elements from both the left and right, trying to find a middle route.  He promises increased border security, lowering the chance of illegal immigration.  For those already in the country, he outlines a “pathway to citizenship” by providing illegal immigrants with tools to become a citizen, while still placing them at the back of the line, behind those who have been waiting in their home countries and deserve their turn.  For these people, he promises to cut down on waiting periods, which are disturbingly long and can extend for several decades.
This is a broad categorization of a bunch of different bills Obama mentioned in his speech.  The first bill discussed is the Violence Against Women Act, first introduced by current Vice President Joe Biden twenty years ago.  The VAWA is a reauthorization (with some expansions) of the original 1994 bill, which allocates 1.6 billion dollars towards the investigation and prosecution of crimes against women, including rape, domestic violence, and stalking.  It recently passed in the Senate, and Obama urged the House to do so as well.  Honestly, I can’t see a good reason why they wouldn’t want to, not only because the bill is common sense, but also because it looks like terrible politics to vote against the act.  What’s more interesting about the bill is that it puts Biden center-stage, with Obama mentioning him frequently in his speech.  If you feel that lately you’ve seen a lot more of the Vice President than usual, as he campaigns for gun reform and other issues, don’t be surprised.  Biden is likely gearing up for a 2016 run for the top job (President), and by highlighting his work on major bills, Obama is easing the way for his colleague to win and his party to stay in power.
On a similar note, gun control, which has been in the spotlight for the past few months, is – predictably – discussed at length.  Obama mentioned having background checks to prevent criminals from getting their hands on guns and taking “weapons of war” off the street.  However, unsurprisingly, he leaned more on an emotional appeal than actual policy initiatives, a stumbling block which has long dominated the debate.  The recent shooting deaths are tragic (by my count, Obama names Hadiya Pendleton, Newtown, the Sikh temple shooting, Aurora, and Gabrielle Giffords).  But we are constantly reminded of their significance.  We are constantly reminded that something needs to change in order to prevent such happenings.  Obama’s job is to move beyond that and actually tell us what those changes are going to be.  And yet he brought up disappointingly few new ideas.
I find the places where Obama struggled the most were when he tried to bring in tired themes into the speech, blandly discussing America’s unity, equal opportunity, etc.  Perhaps this is just because of the country’s climate right now.  We aren’t looking for hollow rhetoric anymore, not when so many concrete issues are left unresolved.  This is not the powerfully hopeful 2008 anymore; Obama has lost his visionary status.  He’s become more of a real politician, more of a pragmatist.  And that’s okay.  It is when Obama promises solid new policies that he succeeds in this speech.  If he can stick with this new direction and harness his power to finally get bills through in Congress, Obama might wind up having a very productive term indeed.