On Tuesday night, President Obama addressed the concerns of the great middle ground of the country’s population, linking the economy and foreign policy to his unwavering focus on restoring a fundamental aspect of the American Dream: that hard work leads to a decent living. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Barack Obama’s State of the Union (Sotu) speech before the American Congress, and, via TV to the nation and the world, was, unexpectedly in competition on TV with a siege of an ex-state trooper in California, thought to have shot police, who was holed up in a burning cabin; as well as the news of North Korea’s third underground nuclear weapons test. Neither of these two events, however, could totally divert attention from a speech that resolutely hewed to the president’s widely anticipated agenda to address the concerns of an American middle class squeezed between rising costs and a still-tepid economic recovery.
The president particularly focused on the concerns of the great middle ground of the country’s population in his first Sotu speech since his re-election, asserting that this generation’s task to work for greater prosperity as a basic American principle, stands in jeopardy because of a changing economy and the partisanness of Washington. Right from the first words, the shape of the address was an invocation of promises made, promises he believes to have been kept – and those pledges yet to be fufilled to the American population’s vast middle ground.
Watch: Barack Obama's State of the Union speech
As Obama said on Tuesday, “Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. After years of gruelling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in 20. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before.... But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class. It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, or who you love.
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”
Obama added that, “Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
In his speech, Obama made a series of proposals – reprising some older ones and offering several new ones – designed to improve access to further (as well as earlier) education and to expand job training programmes. He also encouraged an increase in the federally-set minimum wage rate to $9 an hour – representing about a 25% increase – to be phased in over the next three years. This has been a particular item of labour union support, among other groups, and the proposal received loud applause from Democratic supporters at the speech. He also proposed measures to make voting less problematic, including a high-level study commission to get a grip on the issue nationally. (In the US, voting remains a state by state function).
Much of his agenda will require congressional action – and action on a major share of his economic plan has previously languished in a Congress divided between the two parties. However, the landscape is slightly different now than it was before Obama’s re-election in November 2012 as well as because of the somewhat diminished Republican force in Congress and that party’s difficulty, so far at least, in determining how to reshape its messages and policies for future electoral battles. For his part, Obama and his administration have been stressing that the electorate, even if not Congress, yet, supports his ideas and plans. Helping him somewhat is the fact that the federal deficit is now coming in at under a trillion dollars for the first time during his tenure in office.
In the parts of a solidly domestic issues-oriented speech that did speak to foreign affairs, Obama announced a widely anticipated withdrawal of some 34,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the beginning of 2014, cutting the forces contingent by almost half – and setting up the final withdrawal by the end of that year. The Obama administration plans to keep only a small force in place in that central Asian nation to carry out training and counterterrorism missions thereafter. As Obama said, “After a decade of grinding war our brave men and women in uniform are coming home.”
Through this speech, one that was frequently interrupted by – usually but not entirely – partisan applause, the president was clearly attempting to turn the page from the battles of a first term preoccupied with winding down two wars and working to repair a badly damaged economy. As he, himself, said, “We have cleared away the rubble of crisis,” he said, “and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.” If one leitmotif was of progress achieved, another was the cautionary note that the country's progress, something he kept labelling “unfinished,” remains under the gun unless Obama and Congress can work in harness on the economy’s behalf.
On that latter theme, Obama argued, “We gather here knowing that that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded... It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.” All of this has as backdrop the continuing spectre of those automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that are already on the horizon, just over two weeks away. So far, at least, president and Congress have yet to reach agreement on how to avert those cuts, cuts Obama warned on Tuesday evening would fall hardest on those who can least afford them.
In response to this looming event, Obama called for “bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform” – insisting his proposals would not add to the $854 billion deficit, merely reallocating money already in the budget to finance them. “But let’s be clear,” he argued, “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”
Key Obama proposals include spending $40 billion to upgrade bridges as well as starting a fund, known as the Energy Security Trust, to fund research on ways to make additional American vehicles operate on cleaner fuels. Virtually everything in the speech seemed tied to economic growth. Even as he spoke about immigration legislation, gun control and climate change – themes high on his domestic agenda – he did so by connecting them to the American economy through green jobs and the opportunity ladder. In perhaps his most rhetorically full-throttle moment of the evening, in the aftermath of a series of tragic events in various locations across the country that involved gun fatalities, Obama called for action against gun violence as part of what he called “building new ladders of opportunity” for low-income communities aspiring to rise into the middle class.
As one would expect, his economic and budget message – especially – did not go unchallenged by the Republican opposition. Speaking in the party’s official pre-prepared rebuttal broadcast after the president’s speech, and as an initial tryout for a possible run for the presidency in 2014, Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio said: “But his [Obama’s] favourite attack of all is that those who don’t agree with him, that we only care about rich people... Mr President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbours, hard-working middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class.” A further rebuttal was presented by Kentucky senator Rand Paul – with a message that seemed to challenge other Republicans more than Obama.
Watch: Senator Rubio's water break
Unlike his second inaugural address on 21 January where a broad liberal social issues agenda defined so much of his message, this time around, Obama spoke directly to the pockets of the nation’s middle class audience that had just been the object of so many of his proposals and action agenda items. In the next several days, Obama will travel across the country – at each stop giving remarks that elaborate on the broad strokes of his Sotu address. This will include a speech in Chicago where he will speak about gun control. Chicago was the site where a teenage girl was shot only a short while ago, after she had returned from participating as a marching band member in the 21 January inauguration parade in Washington.
To help underscore reactions to this gun violence scourge, several Democratic members of Congress had brought victims of gun violence as their guests to Obama’s speech. And first lady Michelle Obama’s guest list included a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary where 20 elementary school pupils had died in the recent carnage. Just to make the point a bit clearer, Michelle Obama sat with a police officer who had been a first responder to the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, as well as the parents of the girl in Chicago killed by gunfire this month.
In his speech, Obama said, “The families of Newtown deserve a vote,” as many attending the address stood up and applauded. “The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
Given the laser-like focus on these domestic issues like gun regulation and the economy, foreign policy caught relatively few comments, besides the Afghanistan troop withdrawal announcement. On trade policy, the president said the US and the European Union were ready to begin negotiations on a comprehensive trade treaty. This announcement comes on the heels of a report submitted earlier in the day that had concluded that the gaps between the two sides were sufficiently narrow that a deal was within reach.
He also noted the continuing struggle against al-Qaeda, as well as warning Iran's leadership that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution” to forestall a military confrontation over its uranium enrichment programme. Given the near relentless focus on the economy, Obama said he would address the circumstances in the Middle East during a visit there next month.
And so, the battle lines are now much clearer between the two parties as the new Congress begins its deliberations, considers the national budget requests, calls for tax changes and other new legislation that will come forward. In all of this, Republicans will try to figure out where to compromise and where to oppose a president emboldened by his November win and rising public popularity. Do they fight against gun regulation or spend their energies on spending plans; compromise on immigration or hold fast on something else? And do they find chinks in his armour over the near inevitable disappointments that will come his way in dealing with North Korea, Iran, the Middle East generally, or even with al-Qaeda franchise-style activists in the Sahel? DM
- Obama, in State of the Union, makes case that middle class is job one at the Washington Post
- A Call for ‘Smarter Government’ to Act at the New York Times
- Obama: Nation stronger, GOP should back his plans at the AP
- Fact check: Overreaching in State of Union speech at the AP
- The state-of-the-union address - Obama asks for more at the Economist
- Rubio’s Rebuttal at the New York Times
- The Rap on Rubio, Maureen Dowd’s column at the New York Times
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Dharapak