State of the Union 2014: Obama Offers Action, Not Apologies

Jan 29, 2014Jeff Madrick

The president promised to do what he can without Congress, even if it isn't much.

From a political point of view, President Obama gave one of the best speeches of his presidency last night. In this, his fifth State of the Union Address, he avoided all apologies. No word about the slow progress on cutting unemployment, or the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, or the inability to pass gun control, or the extreme excess of government intrusion on America privacy.

His tone was resolute and optimistic, and he struck many progressive chords. He made a nation that is down feel up. President Obama in particular made a strong case for a higher minimum wage. Commentators like David Brooks have pooh-poohed this because it wouldn’t raise that many families above the poverty line. This is the height of insensitivity. The poverty line is desperately low in America. But more than half the benefit would go to families that earn $40,000 or less, families in which one of its members will get a raise—usually an adult—if the minimum wage is raised. That’s a family, not an individual. And the higher minimum wage bumps up wages just above it.

Any idea that Americans are getting paid what they deserve, which is the assumption the Brookses of the world make, is a triumph of utopian insensitivity.

President Obama gave a shoutout to Senator Tom Harkin, who is leading the campaign for a $10.10 minimum wage in Congress. We are proud to say that Senator Harkin was our keynote speaker at the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative's jobs emergency conference last year.  

But as I say, the president didn’t dwell in the realm of apology. He will raise pay for those on federal contracts. He talked about equal pay for women. He wants an immigration bill. He implied that inequality cannot be tolerated at this level in America. He would offer subsidies for business to bring jobs home.

All these struck optimistic notes. But he avoided the policies that really need doing. Sequestration has to be ended and government spending pumped up to get unemployment lower at a faster pace. But he did not talk about fiscal stimulus. He would live within the bounds of the austerity economics he helped bring about, even if he was not nearly as responsible for it as the Republicans.

He did not talk much about fixes to Obamacare but made clear it is helping millions already. This may sound like rhetoric, but it is critical. Too few realize how beneficial the new plan is—which has partly been Obama’s fault. He has avoided talking much about it. Last night he came out swinging, justifiably so. But it needs some fixes, and eventually a public option.

The headline is that Obama says he will do what he can with or without a recalcitrant Congress. The truth is he can’t do much. But for a president who has not taken the battle to the members on the Hill, this speech was a triumph and long in coming. He put Congress on the spot. He should keep using the bully pulpit, unafraid to do so, because he is right and they are mostly wrong. 

Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

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