Obama Calls for Education, Innovation, Infrastructure & Collaboration

Obama’s second State of the Union address called for investment in education and infrastructure, tax-code reform and an historic investment to achieve 80% clean energy by 2035

One seat was left vacant, in honor of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who is currently recovering from a severe gunshot wound to the head, suffered during an assassination attempt that killed 6 people. Pres. Obama opened his remarks with a tribute to the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio, a unifying gesture that won loud applause from the hall. Obama then struck a somber tone and asked everyone to consider the lessons of the tragedy in Tucson.

“Tucson reminded us,” he intoned “that no matter who we are or where we came from, each of us is a part of something greater, something more consequential… we are part of the American family… we are still bound together as one people, and we share common hopes and common dreams…” This idea would strike the tone of his address, seeking pragmatic common ground and a commitment to building a stronger future in which Americans can thrive together in a free and democratic society.

Obama noted the partisan divide and the night’s unique gesture of civility —Republicans and Democrats sitting side-by-side—, observing it was “not whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow”, that will determine if the country moves forward into a new era of prosperity, which won another standing ovation including every member of both parties.

He added that “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.” He pledged to focus on ”whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else… whether hard work is rewarded”.

“We are poised for progress”, said Obama, then naming several key economic indicators, and suggested that we measure our progress not by those data alone, but by the wellbeing “of our people”, the ability of innovators and hard working people to build a better future.

“Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger”, he said, praising Democrats and Republicans for coming together to make that happen. He suggested this is the kind of cooperation and constructive compromise that is needed going forward, but later specified that Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy should be allowed to expire in 2012.

“To win the future,” he said, “we’ll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making.” He explained that once upon a time, communities across the country offered long-term economic stability and opportunity, but that the rules have changed after decades of rapid-fire technological innovation, and it was the work of government, of educators and of private enterprise to build a nation that can compete and prosper in that global marketplace.

He warned of those challenges, specifically: “Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer, so yes, things have changed.” But he added that ”America still has the largest, most prosperous economy” and spoke of how no other nation had the dynamism or vast potential to capitalize on this century so demanding of innovation.

He praised the unique nature of America’s approach to education —the aim of cultivating an informed and active electorate— noting: “We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea, the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny… that’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like ‘What do you think of that idea?’, ‘What would you do to change the world?’”

He reiterated what seemed to be the refrain of his address, proclaiming that “The future is ours to win.” He then declared that ”We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build” the rest of the world and detailed key areas of reform where government can help make that happen.

“We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government; that’s how we’ll win the future… and tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there…” He said the very first step is to invest in innovation, that the government needs to believe in and defend the imagination and the ingenuity of the American people, adding that “innovation doesn’t just change our lives; it is how we make our living.”

“Throughout our history,” he said, “our government has provided cutting edge innovators and inventors with the resources they need”. He praised the virtues of government action to support innovators and entrepreneurs, to spur major innovations and usher in a period of widespread economic prosperity. He spoke of the shock experienced in the United States when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he declared, as he sought to inspire a Kennedy era commitment to reforming and innovating across the economy. He said his forthcoming budget will commit new resources and new incentives to spurring major new innovations in ”biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology”.

“We’re not just handing out money,” he noted, “we’re issuing a challenge… we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.” The US “can become the first nation to have a million electric cars on the road, and said he would push to ”eliminate the billions of dollars in subsidies we currently give to oil companies”. Echoing New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, he pointed out that the oil companies are “doing just fine on their own.”

“So, instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in the energy of tomorrow.” He pledged that by 2035, 80% of America’s energy will come from clean energy sources.” He coupled the project of building a more dynamic, more innovative America with the need to vastly improve the nation’s commitment to education at all levels.

The president observed, soberly, that “America’s fallen to 9th in terms of people with a college degree.” He called for action to promote higher education, but noted that “It’s family that first instills a love of learning in a child; it’s parents who need to turn the TV off. We need to teach our children it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who should be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

This line received another bipartisan standing ovation, and was in a sense the groundwork for his expression of the principle that there needs to be community-oriented social spending that will strengthen families and provide parents with the time they need to invest more energy in their children’s education.

Schools, Obama said, should places “of high expectations and high performance”. When Pres. Obama touted the virtues of the Race to the Top competition for new funding among states, his call to replace “No Child Left Behind” with a more focused, more intelligent approach to improving the actual quality of education available to the nation’s children.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders’”, he observed, suggesting that “here in America, it’s time we treated the people who teach our children with the same level of respect.” He won praise for his version of education reform, and as one observer noted, made the Secretary of Education the most prominent member of his cabinet in the context of his address.

The president explained his intention to commit new resources to improving the quality of education across the country, using the best tested and proven ideas of both Republican and Democratic governors. “Over the next 10 years, with so many baby-boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers.” For young people currently in the course of study, he urged that “If you want to make a difference… become a teacher; your country needs you.”

Again, the entire room filled with the sound of a bipartisan standing ovation.

Pres. Obama went on to say that all people must have the same opportunity to go to college. He explained his administration’s major reform to the financial aid system, saying “That’s why we’ve ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks”, enabling the government to devote more actual cash to loans and provide long-term repayment relief.

He said he will call on Congress to make permanent the college tuition tax credit, worth $10,000 for four years of higher education. He described these measures as necessary for reaching “the goal I set two years ago,” that “By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

He spoke of all the children who study in America’s schools but face the risk of deportation, due to their parents’ inability to get legal documentation for them, a clear reference to the still pending DREAM Act, which would allow young people who stay in school and happen to lack legal documentation for residency to get on a path to citizenship.

Of college students coming from other nations, he noted that “As soon as they obtain their degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.” He used the refrain “It makes no sense” multiple times, to point out key areas of policy where ideological opponents can agree on the need to take action to further goals commonly held by all.

He called for action to addres the very serious problem of “illegal immigration”, but pushed for respect for the rights and dignity of “talented responsible young people”, and to recognize the contributions of workers living “in the shadows”. He sought to show the value of an America bathed in sunshine, i.e. transparency, where people are able to live and work and collaborate, in the open.

He added to the need for innovation and education, the need to overhaul and reinvent the nation’s infrastructure, the hardware framework of the economy: “We need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people and information, from high-speed rail to high-speed internet. Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our leadership has slipped.” He explained that prosperous new communities don’t just spring up out of nowhere; they are built around major construction projects, train stations along new transportation routes.

“Our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail,” adding that it could be twice as fast as driving and ”For some trips it will be faster than flying, without the pat-down.” He also reminded his audience that at the moment, ”routes in California and the midwest are already underway.”

He explained that all the investment in new and improved infrastructure is about building a prosperous future that works for all Americans. Of course, there are serious obstacles to doing this built into the tax code by well paid lobbyists working for corporate interests, who have persistently bent the ear of Congress, for decades. Pres. Obama said ”a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit specific businesses or industries”, and added that he would be ”asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system, get rid of the loopholes, level the playing field.”

“Recently we signed agreements with China and India that will support at least 250,000 jobs.” Obama said he had ordered a review of all regulations and that any which pose an unnecessary burden on business will be fixed, so that job-creation can continue and expand, but that he “will not hesitate to create or enforce common-sense safeguards to protect the American people.”

For Republicans opposed to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, he said “If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better, or more affordable, I’m willing to work with you.” He sought to draw a line between unserious efforts to repeal much-needed reforms that are already in place and showing results and the more constructive approach of working together to make sure those reforms perform even better for the people who most need them, while lowering costs for everyone.

Obama then detailed all of the reforms he will not go back on: he will not allow insurers to refuse care for sickness (pre-existing conditions); he will not leave small business-owners having to pay $5,000 more for insuring their employees; he will not force millions of young people off of their parents’ insurance plans.

The president then said he was “proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for five years. This will reduce our deficit by $400 billion and bring domestic discretionary spending to its lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.” He pointed out that “annual domestic spending… represents a little more than 12% of our budget.”

“I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can legitimately afford to do without,” he said, “but let’s make sure we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable.” This was, again, a line in the sand, a strong defense of the reasoning behind and the very real need for principled regulation and constructive social spending that allows real people to live more freely and more prosperously.

Obama said that the wrong kind of cuts to social spending would be the equivalent of “lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engines: you might feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

The Democratic president then took the reins on an issue that has been the darling of Republicans for a generation, but has gained little traction in Washington. “The best thing we could do on taxes for all Americansis to simplify the individual tax code,” he said. This won a bemused facial expression from the Republican House Speaker behind him, and hinted at the prospect of some bipartisan progress in 2011.

“We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable,” he went on; “we should give them a government that’s more competent, more efficient.” He pointed out that ”There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports” and noted his “favorite” example of executive overlap: the Interior Department has authority over salmon when they are in fresh water, but the Commerce Department has authority over them when they are in salt water.

Obama promised to send a proposal to Congress within the next 6 months to reform the entire federal government, cutting overlap and waste. This may have been the most surprising announcement to many of his most fevered opponents. Republicans want to institute major reforms to the structure of the executive branch of government, mostly to close agencies that oversee social spending; with a Democratic president pushing this pet Republican cause in the midst of a fight to cut government, Obama may successfully defend those agencies, while actually achieving major improvements in the way of efficiency and cost.

He also decried the role of for-profit lobbyists in shaping the views and the agenda of elected officials. “You deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, so I ask Congress to do what the executive branch is already doing.” The administration is already publishing information about meetings with lobbyists, and the president wants Congress to make public all encounters with paid lobbyists working to promote wealthy special interests.

He said that in the interest of neutralizing the power of corporate lobbyists on Capitol Hill, he will veto any legislation of any kind that comes to his desk “with earmarks in it”. This is a very bold declaration, challenging the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to live by its words and protests and to deny itself the much loved, much maligned earmarks that give them control of federal spending.

He called for a new era of international leadership and engagement, demanding that “America’s moral example must always shine for all who year for freedom and justice and dignity.” There was full bipartisan applause for the president’s Iraq withdrawal, when he said that 100,000 soldiers had already left Iraq “with their heads held high”.

He said it was a basic American value to welcome “American muslims as part of our American family”, another line which drew a brief, bipartisan standing ovation. The president spoke about the need to build strong alliances across the world, and said the United States is standing with peoples around the world to promote democracy, cooperation and opportunity. He said his administration is ”combatting the corruption that can rot a society and rob people of opportunity” in countries around the world.

“In South Sudan,” he noted, “with our assistance, the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war”. He added, with firmness, that ”The United States stands with Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. We must never forget that the things we’ve fought for and struggled for live in the hearts of people everywhere, and we must never forget” the sacrifice of those who have served in the military in times of war.

“Tonight let us speak with one voice in reaffirming that our nation is united in support of our troops and their families… and by enlisting our veterans in creating the great nation they served”, and added that ”Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving their country because of who they love, and because of that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to military recruiters and ROTC.”

“None of this will be easy, all of it will take time, and it will be harder, because we will argue about everything… and yet as contentious and messy and frustrating as our democracy may be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” This won Obama the most resounding bipartisan cheers, and sustained standing ovation of the speech.

He spoke of the real meaning of the American dream, that any person can achieve anything he or she works for earnestly. “That dream,” he said, “is why I’m able to stand here before you tonight; that dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me; that dream is why someone who by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnatti bar can serve as Speaker of the House of the greatest nation on Earth.”

Obama singled out the young entrepreneur whose firm’s unique new drilling process allowed for the creation of “Plan B”, the strategy that dug 2,000 feet into the ground and liberated 33 Chilean miners in 37 days, far more quickly than anyone had expected, given the challenges.

While the president was gradually departing from the chamber, CNN showed a picture of Mark Kelly, the astronaut and husband of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, holding her hand as they watched the president’s address together. Giffords was not shown, but is said to be improving and nearly ready to enter full physical rehabilitation.