Roosevelt Reacts: How the State of the Union Could Be Even Stronger

Feb 13, 2013

President Obama laid out some strong progressive ideas, but there's lots more work to be done.

Richard Kirsch, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow:

Two years ago, progressive groups came together to develop the Progressive Economic Narrative. And last night, at the very beginning of his State of the Union address, the president began with our story, ending with our central metaphor:

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.

Then he said the way we build that middle-class economic engine is by following the same path we laid out: government investment in research, infrastructure, energy and education. And he added at least some substance on good jobs, with his minimum wage proposal. This is a battle of ideas and policies we should welcome. 

Dante Barry, Chapter Services Coordinator & Summer Academy Fellowship Coordinator at the Campus Network:

Last night, the president announced a new Presidential Voting Commission, an ambiguous and amorphous idea to address the "voter experience" on Election Day, chaired by lawyers from the Obama and Romney campaigns. I am pleased that he decided to tackle this problem, yet I am also disheartened to see the efforts to take bold action on voting reform do not include a large amount of input from the communities represented, suppressed, and deterred. This commission should provide forward-thinking recommendations and take bold action to support our most sacred right for any American: one voice, one vote. We have a responsibility to provide access and opportunity for every American to vote in a way that reflects this country's progress and values with 21st century innovation and technology. 

Thomas Ferguson, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts:

What you think of the president’s speech depends on what you think the real state of our union is. I think that we are five years into an economic crisis that is barely improving thanks to a huge deficiency in aggregate demand for goods and services. All over the globe, that crisis is toppling governments, fanning competitive depreciations, and, if you look closely, stimulating arms races, especially in Northeast Asia, where governments are pushing back more vigorously against the economic crisis than in our own country. Against this standard, the president’s proposals look pretty weak. Spending $50 or even $100 billion on infrastructure is a drop in the bucket. Raising the minimum wage is an excellent idea, but it won’t solve the aggregate demand problem. We’ll just have to see about climate change, but acknowledging the problem is just a first baby step. And the problem of medical costs is fundamentally a problem of monopolistic practices and limited information. If you don’t name that situation and deal with it, you have no real hope of delivering better care at lower cost. The president didn’t. To all of this, of course, there is a ready answer: If you don’t like these proposals, wait till you see those of the Republicans. And, this, alas, is equally true. Except when it comes to drones and killing Americans without due process.

Bryce Covert, Editor of Next New Deal:

Women were decisive in helping elect President Obama to a second term, and last night he began to start thanking them for their support. Perhaps the most important policy he proposed was his call for universal preschool, an enormous yet desperately needed program that would not only help children, but also help their working parents -- and let's be real, mothers still do the majority of work in caring for children -- go to their jobs knowing their children are taken care of. But he also put forward some other key policies that, if they were to be passed, would mean a lot to the country's women workers. He called for a raise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour and to have it indexed to inflation so that it doesn't continue to stagnate as it has for the past three years. Women absolutely need a raise in the minimum wage. They make up two-thirds of the workers who make such low pay. He unfortunately didn't call for a raise in the tipped minimum wage, which has been stuck at $2.13 for 20 years and would give a huge boost to the 64 percent of waiters who are women. But he did take aim at another problem affecting women's pay: salary secrecy. He called for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would build on the Lilly Ledbetter Act to get rid of the ban at half of all companies on discussing salary. Women first have to know what their coworkers are making before they can root out discrimination. All three of these policies would actually be huge steps forward in combatting the gender wage gap, as balancing children and work, making the minimum wage, and being forced into secrecy about paychecks are big factors.

Jordan Fraade, D.C. Pipeline member:

In terms of its delivery, the State of the Union felt like a victory lap: President Obama seems more confident and confrontational, a little bit feisty, and vindicated by the election. But despite this tone, the speech’s policy proposals seemed to focus on incremental change with a few major exceptions (universal Pre-K is a pretty big deal). The president kept coming back to the idea of making government “smarter,” not larger or smaller. His proposal for a “Fix-It-First” program for infrastructure is typical of this approach to policy, and in this case, it’s a good move. Putting people to work doing things like rebuilding deficient infrastructure and revitalizing abandoned urban neighborhoods is a far smarter way to plan for the future than building new highways to the suburbs and encouraging sprawl, which has been standard U.S. policy for over 60 years. However, along with his comments on mortgage relief and homeownership, I would have liked to see President Obama propose something to help renters as well, who are disproportionately urban, minority, and young and end up subsidizing homeowners through the tax code. Millennials, who graduated into a bad economy and a bottomed-out housing market, have largely had no choice but to pay the rent that’s asked of them, since tight credit and low salaries have made buying a home nearly impossible. The president, whose administration is filled with smart growth advocates, likely knows all of this already. His Millennial supporters would surely appreciate it if he acted on it during the next four years.

Mike Malloy, Campus Network member and student at Michigan State University:

In recent years, two Republican strategies to weaken the Democratic voting base have emerged at the state level: voter restriction and attacks on labor. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—President Obama neglected both in his speech last night. The president's eagerness to see bipartisan cooperation is commendable. But failing to expose partisan games undermines his bipartisan vision, enables the misleading of the public, and hurts targeted groups.

The president spoke about “improving the voting experience,” addressing logistical issues that caused long waits in November. Why not address attempts to supress voters by requiring special identification and limiting early voting, both intended to obstruct Democratic voters? The president could still champion convenient voting efforts and—in a perfect world—even call for both parties to end gerrymandering.

Likewise, despite emphasizing manufacturing and proposing a new minimum wage, the president did not mention organized labor, including the right-to-work laws and collective bargaining restrictions Republican state legislatures have passed to weaken unions' political influence. Acknowledging the problematic worker pension and benefit costs state and local governments face, President Obama might have called for a renegotiation of contracts while reaffirming the rights of workers, acknowledging the views of both parties. Instead, the president's silence continued a trend of staying quiet on labor issues. This likely stems from the unpopularity of unions, but it also reinforces that negative view.

The president's pursuit of bipartisanship cooperation is truly admirable. But in order to achieve it, he should call attention to egregious acts of partisan gamesmanship in addition to finding common goals.

Tim Price, Deputy Editor of Next New Deal

There were a lot of takeaways from last night's State of the Union, but the most striking to me is that after the last four years, President Obama still has the ability to surprise us. After what many viewed as an uncharacteristically progressive inauguration speech, there was potential for the president to retreat into his reflexively centrist comfort zone -- and there were hints of that, like his insistence that nothing he wants to do should add to the deficit, or the questionable decision to lead off the night by talking about entitlement reform. But for the most part, he exceeded expectations and behaved like post-2012 Obama, who seems much more comfortable pushing the boundaries of the debate now that he knows he won't be running for anything again. Who expected him to even mention the minimum wage or universal pre-K, let alone highlight them as major policy proposals, before the prepared text began to leak last night? We still have a long way to go before the solutions on the table measure up to the challenges we face, but at least we're having the conversation.

Where Obama defied expectations, Republicans met them, to their detriment and ours. Whether the topic was jobs, immigration, voting rights, or protecting women from violence, John Boehner kept his hands at his sides and grimaced as if he were sitting on a tack -- except that would at least have motivated him to stand up. In his response, Republican rising star Marco Rubio rehashed every tired anti-government argument you've heard a thousand times before and offered bold ideas like... tax cuts. It's obvious that they have nothing new to offer and are hoping mindless obstruction will be a winning strategy like it was in 2010. But that was a different time and a different economy, and the president's message to them last night was clear and forceful: we're all tired of your shtick. What else have you got?

Tarsi Dunlop,  D.C. Pipeline leader:

President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of investment last night: in America, in the middle class, and in future generations. He also talked about the return on investment, which is particularly pertinent when it comes to expanding access to early childhood education. Access to high-quality Pre-K education is one of the most effective ways to ensure that all children are prepared for academic success in K-12 and then ultimately for college and careers. If children are not reading at grade level by third grade, they are at a higher risk of falling behind and dropping out by the time they reach high school. Early childhood education offers early exposure to vocabulary, numbers, and helps children learn how to socialize with others. An additional benefit for families is that access to Pre-K education allows both parents to earn an income while offering children a safe and engaging learning environment. Outside high-quality daycare is expensive, and many parents don't have several hundred dollars a week to pay for it, something that the president noted last night. While expanding early childhood education is not cheap, there is a significant lifelong return on investment over the course of a lifetime, as the president pointed out: boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy and violent crime, increasing the likelihood of students holding a job, and having more stable families of their own. Ideally, as this proposal gains traction, the president’s definition of "working with states" should not involve competitive grant funding. This implementation method puts resource-strapped districts and states at a disadvantage in applying for funding and creates winners and losers. Best practices already exist for statewide programs, with effective public-private partnerships, that can and should be replicated. In the spirit of progressive values and ideals, dollars and investment should reflect an equal and fair commitment to each child, regardless of external circumstances. 

Michelle Tham, Campus Network member and student at American University:

Obama's speech mentioned the success in natural gas and how further investments must be funneled into the renewable energy sector. However, by not mentioning intellectual property rights, Obama misses the target of the conversation on renewable energy. Alternative energy resources is one topic that all countries are willing to share information on, except the United States. Foreign firms from Europe invest in China and India because their IPR (intellectual property rights) are less stringent, which allows the flow of information and design to flourish. China is the leading producer in solar panels because its designs are more affordable than American-based solar panels. Wind technology is China's third largest energy source domestically -- after coal and natural gas. Therefore, in order to increase innovative ideas, Obama needs more open trade policies with different countries and needs to encourage cooperation, not only in diplomatic relations, but in commercial relations as well. Technology transfers are occurring in commercial levels and the government's role is to facilitate such transaction. 

Naomi Ahsan,  D.C. Pipeline leader:

In his inaugural address, the president broke with the rhetoric of politics as usual to lay out his philosophy for good government in a very genuine manner. He used this new voice again in his State of the Union address and listed several legislative priorities within the overarching objectives of addressing poverty and gender justice. The first was raising the federal minimum wage. His description of how a family fully employed with honest work at the minimum wage can still be living in poverty captures the rationale for supporting welfare programs. The president also noted that persistent poverty has emerged as a geographically-defined phenomenon within the U.S. and called for direct community development efforts as well as making high-quality preschool available to every child. This would help break the cycle of poverty, particularly in distressed neighborhoods. Children from low-income families are already less likely to graduate high school and they start kindergarten demonstrably behind better-off peers on developmental milestones leading up to literacy. Making quality preschool universal would show that we have learned from seeing programs like Head Start and Jumpstart dramatically improve underprivileged children's educational prospects by providing extra support at the pre-kindergarten level. It is also important to recognize the connection between gender inequality and poverty: women account for about 62 percent of those earning the minimum wage and often are taking financial responsibility for leading families. Fair pay for these women workers contributes to the health and opportunity of children and families as a whole. I was impressed that the President was offering informed and thoughtful solutions for the growing issue of poverty, which has great potential for benefiting the economy and is deserving of the national attention that too often goes to deficit reduction.

Florence Otaigbe, Campus Network member and student at Michigan State University:

As a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama, my first reaction was that I couldn’t agree more with his introductory remarks on how America is now stronger than ever before. There is no disagreement when it comes to the matter of progress. The disagreement comes in trying to push progress further. During his address, the president laid out various proposals for his next term. Ranging from education to gun control, the president hit the nail on the head. Yet in spite of these great ideas, it’s up to Congress and the people for any change to occur. That’s where my reaction turns less optimistic. I truly believe that there is a great divide in Washington D.C. that is starting to reach the point of no return. Both sides are polarized like never before, and it’s really hard to reach a consensus on anything. I just don’t see how the country can advance when there is so much tension among the people who enable that advancement. There’s much more room for change in America, but most of that rests with most of our leaders in D.C. Without their cohesion, it’s likely that America will remain stagnant, and that is not what we want for our country.

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