Pres. Barack Obama’s first official State of the Union address was an impassioned call to action, and something of a civics lesson. He reprimanded both parties in Congress, admonishing Democrats not to “run for the hills” and reminding Republicans that if they claim a leadership role by obstructing legislation, then they have an obligation to the public to participate in the process. The address artfully positioned Obama’s agenda astride the political center, leaving the Republicans little room in the center from which to attack his policies.
Finally, he said directly to the American people: “You don’t quit; I don’t quit.” That line was delivered with striking firmness and conviction, and made it clear the president’s conciliatory tone was part of a moral demand that both parties commit to “solve problems”. His message was largely focused on issues related to the economy and job creation. The speech boldly intertwined Obama’s progressive agenda with a centrist approach to governing and to foster broad-based economic prosperity, including job-creation, export expansion and incentives for higher education.
78% of people had a positive response to the speech, according to the CNN/Opinion Research focus-group poll conducted after the speech, fully 48% listed as “very positive” and 30% “somewhat positive”. Another focus-group study of public reaction found a 20-point jump in the view that Pres. Obama had the priorities of the American people and was working to serve their interests. The CNN poll also examined whether people thought Obama’s policies are moving the country in the right direction: before the speech 53% said yes, 43% no; after the speech, 71% yes, 27% no.
The White House posted a statement about the address, focusing on the following:
In his State of the Union Address tonight, the President laid out an agenda attempting to attack one problem from every conceivable angle: the terrible squeeze felt by America’s middle class. Fundamentally, that means prying government away from special interests and dedicating it to measures that put Americans to work and lay the foundation for a stronger economy for our country – lowering health care and tuition costs, spurring creation of the next generation of clean energy jobs. It also means putting a cop on the beat on Wall Street, so major banks can no longer take advantage of families and taxpayers.
To do all that, though, we need to change the way Washington works. Already the President has taken unprecedented steps in this direction, from releasing the names of all visitors to the White House for the first time ever to clamping down on the revolving door between government and lobbying. But as much progress was made on this front in this first year, it was still only the first year, and the President will keep pushing forward, whether that’s shining sunlight on any contact between lobbyists and the White House, or pushing Congress to disclose all earmark requests in one place for Americans to see.
The speech combined a number of key political tasks: he sought to address the worries and interests of independents, defend his record, push his agenda, and take over the center, while inviting his Republican opponents to participate. David Gergen, adviser to both Republican and Democratic White Houses, remarked that he did not see Obama telling the American people what they absolutely must do, but he made the case for his priorities and showed that “He clearly understands the future”.
On education funding, Pres. Obama pledged to push for bold reforms and urged the Senate to pass its version of the House’s bill to provide more funding for higher education. His reforms will allow people to go to college with expanded Pell Grants and low-interest student loans, for which they could not be charged more than 10% of their future income at any given time, and any remaining debt would be forgiven after 20 years — after 10 years, if the borrower goes into public service.
He specifically focused on the need to create new value in the economy, not only by funding the highest quality of education, but by investing in the overhaul of flawed and degraded sectors of the economy. He pushed for a sustained commitment from the United States Congress, the administration and the private sector for building a clean energy economy. He reminded critics of climate science that the nation that succeeds in liberating itself from carbon fuels and leads the race to create a green economy will lead the world economy.
He declared boldly that he would never accept “second place” for the United States, by extension suggesting that those who oppose real commitment to energy and transport innovation are undermining the nation’s future. From high-speed rail to incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship in clean energy and transport, the president listed concrete proposals that will create jobs, steer the nation toward energy independence, and establish a true clean energy economy.
On a number of reform issues, the president praised the House of Representatives for passing major pieces of legislation, but acknowledged the Senate has either failed to take up the issue or failed to pass a measure of its own. Healthcare reform, stalled for months due to the idiosyncrasies of the Senate process, was another area where Senate stalling impeded the reform agenda in the president’s first year. He urged members of both parties to commit themselves to solving problems and to getting meaningful reform enacted.
Key among the reform efforts Obama pushed was serious financial regulatory reform. He has urged both houses to get a bill to him soon, noting that the intent is not to punish banks, but rather to safeguard the American economy and the wellbeing of the American people against the kind of speculation-based collapse that nearly plunged the economy into a depression in 2008. This policy point, like others in the speech, merged committed progressive activism with a principled centrist message of public service and responsibility.
The speech was comprehensive and covered most of the wide array of issues the president has often spoken of as part of the complex array of crises and opportunities the nation is currently dealing with. He pledged to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy which allows the military to fire soldiers for cause if it is discovered they are gay. He also spoke of his commitment to comprehensive nuclear arms reduction and nuclear weapons security across the world.
The president noted that ongoing negotiations with the Russian Federation regarding a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty have nearly achieved that goal, and that part of his nuclear security agenda will be a collaborative effort to secure 100% of the world’s nuclear weapons and materials within four years. The plan is designed to prevent “loose nukes” from falling into the hands of terrorist networks or hostile regimes that may seek to use the weapons to make a political point or to make demands.
The White House listed the following as key areas of focus for the address:
- The President called on the Senate to pass a financial reform package.
- A vision for a clean energy economy.
- The President will continue his push to invest in the skills and education of our people.
- The President is committed to making college affordable for all Americans.
- The President is making investments to ensure that the middle class benefits from this economic recovery.
- Changing the way we do business.
- Countering Citizens United v. FEC — the Supreme Court ruling that made corporate funding for political ads virtually unlimited.
- The President stands by military families.
- The President is establishing a National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force.
- Immigration reform.
The following is a list of specific policy initiatives cited by the White House as signs of the president’s reform agenda:
- The President will fight to recover the money American taxpayers spent to bailout the banks.
- The President recognizes that Small Businesses will be key to our nation’s economic recovery.
- The President reiterates his support for continued investment in our nation’s infrastructure.
- Tax breaks to keep jobs at home.
- The President also called on the Senate to pass a jobs bill that he can sign.
- We must invest in American ingenuity and innovation.
- We need to export more of our goods around the world.
- The President remains committed to helping Americans stay in their homes and help their homes retain their value.
- As Americans are getting their budgets in order, the President is getting the nation’s financial house in order.
- The President’s focus on national security includes rooting out terrorists where they hide.
- The President’s commitment to Non-Proliferation results.
- The President is launching a bioterror and pandemic threat initiative.
- The President announced that he will work this year to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Near the end of his speech, Pres. Obama spoke passionately of the need to act in service of the public, to perform the duties of office and take responsibility for leading the nation to a better future. As his rhetoric echoed the message of principled liberalism so long associated with his family’s public service, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) appeared to be moved, his eyes welling up, as the message echoed and the president declared his commitment to the principles of progressive problem solving.
Throughout the speech, television images showed Republicans reacting either stone-faced, or crestfallen, firm in opposition or applauding the president and his agenda, depending on the moment and on how critical Obama was of their own party. And he was critical: he urged Republicans to take seriously his invitation to join in productive policy debates, and said he would meet with the Republican leadership at least once every month, to ensure the two parties were hearing each other.