Roosevelt Institute Fellows and Network members weigh in on what they liked about President Obama's fifth State of the Union and where it fell short.
Andrea Flynn, Roosevelt Institute Fellow:
Last night, President Obama again proved himself to be a champion of improving the economic security of American women. He addressed many policy initiatives – immigration reform, universal pre-K, paid sick and family leave, and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit – that, if advanced by Congress, would have a positive impact on women and their families. Most notable was his strong support for raising the minimum wage. Yesterday the president issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour, and in his address he called on governors and state legislators around the country to follow his example. This is an issue that disproportionately affects women and their families. As of 2011, women represented 46.9 percent of the work force but more than 62 percent of minimum-wage workers. More than 2.5 million American women have incomes at or below the minimum wage. As President Obama noted, women still only get paid $.77 for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, with women of color being particularly impacted by wage discrepancies. Black women earn $.64 and Latina women $.55 for every dollar a white man earns. Conservatives are likely to criticize President Obama for using the power of his office to mandate such a sweeping change, but there is precedent for utilizing the power of executive orders to institute improvements in the workplace. In fact, more than 40 years ago, President Nixon issued an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sex, race, age and other characteristics. That order paved the way for an expansion of employment opportunities for women, just as President Obama’s order will begin to level the playing field for American women and their families.
Yasemin Ayarci, President, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
While I was pleased to hear the announcement of an increase in minimum wage for federally contracted workers through an executive order, President Obama must also put in place limitations on executive pay, which will hold them accountable for funneling taxpayer money into their own pockets. But after spending the majority of his time in office coddling banks and wealthy donors, Obama is not the person to look to for decreasing income inequality. To the president, economic reform means tweaking payroll taxes and making hollow calls to end tax cuts for the rich. When you observe the policy, he has made the Bush tax cuts permanent, lowered Wall Street's capital gains and dividends taxes to 20 percent, and lowered the estate tax to 40 percent, among other things. A rearrangement of the tax code that allows Americans to take back the wealth created by labor and accumulated by corporatists is key for a progressive job creation plan and for reducing income inequality levels. That sort of change will not come from the White House, and so progressives must shift their focus to the grassroots, bottom-up approach.
Erik Pekkala, member, Greater Boston Network, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
President Obama set a bold vision for our nation in his 2014 State of the Union address last night. He started the speech by citing various policy accomplishments and measures of growth, signaling "after five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."
The President addressed head-on the Washington gridlock that led to October’s debt ceiling brinksmanship, shuttered the federal government and deeply frustrated the American people. President Obama said he is "eager" to work with Congress to make his vision for the nation a reality, but made it clear that "...wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do." While the Commander-in-Chief should use the powers of his office to serve the American people, there are limits to executive authority. If congressional infighting continues to block legislative progress, the Obama administration can only go so far through executive orders and federal agencies.
This State of the Union got a warmer reception from Republican members of Congress than in recent years, with GOP applause for Obama's statements on reforming the immigration system and corporate tax code. As the Republican Party continues its internal debate about its image and connecting with voters, perhaps it will be more open to collaboration and finding common ground with the President and Democrats in Congress. The President seemed renewed as he told the nation that he is ready to go to work. Let's hope he can use that same energy and leadership displayed in last night's speech to unite both parties in Congress to work together for the American people. Only then will the President's vision for our country be realized.
Rajiv Narayan, former Senior Fellow for Health Policy, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
Like many, I was struck by the president's now-crystallized shift away from a deeply unpopular and inactive Congress. While I look forward to 2014 being the politico-zodiac Year of the Executive, I think the "do-nothing" and "lame-duck" characterizations of Congress miss what the legislative branch is doing. On no less than the day of the State of the Union address, the do-nothing Congress did something pretty deplorable -- a farm bill finally moved from conference to the House and Senate floors, and it aims to cut monthly SNAP benefits to 850,000 households by $90. For a presidency increasingly focused on closing the income gap and reducing income inequality, this is a lunge in the wrong direction. As the administration focuses on action at the state and executive levels, it's important to remember we cannot make a powerful legislative body completely irrelevant. President Obama and voters need to draw the line between an unproductive Congress and a counterproductive one.
David Meni, Vice President, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
I found this State of the Union address to be a much different animal than addresses in past years. There was less rhetoric involving cooperation with Congress, and more emphasis on executive actions that can be taken with some immediacy and without gridlock. President Obama's relative sidelining of Congress has been talked up enough by the news, but I think the implications of the speech are interesting; we saw more policy discussion, from the long-overdue minimum wage increase for federal workers to expanding school broadband access. These are all immediate proposals that will not have to be watered down. That is refreshing.
On the other hand, I was dismayed by the amount that was glossed over. The president's discussion of college affordability was more of the same. The proposal for a comprehensive immigration bill, the much-applauded statement that women should have equal pay, and the brief sentences on gun control and military spending--all of these are critical issues that should be at the core of any State of the Union address, but what I heard was very little tangible policy. So while I am glad that the president is finally talking about addressing issues that are within his executive power, I have to admit that this State of the Union lacked ambition on many of America's most pressing issues.
Jill Nguyen, Co-Director, Hendrix College chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
2013 ended with President Obama’s disapproval rating at an all-time high of 56%, according to CNN. It was a tough year, especially with the technical challenges of healthcare.gov, a much anticipated immigration reform bill kept out of the House’s agenda, and gun control actions achieved only through Executive Orders. Despite my disappointment with failed promises of previous years, the State of the Union address last night brought me back to the hope-filled time that was 2008. By recycling some promises from previous years, the President has managed to satisfy my wish list.
Considering his declaration of 2014 as a year of action, I was glad to see the President return to immigration reform. As I see it, an ideal law should keep families together, evaluate the broken deportation machine, and offer job trainings and education access to immigrants’ families. I was also pleased to see the President recognize the work of the First Lady. It was even more important that he recognized that women are still not paid equally to their male colleagues. The women who were in the chamber, who included the bipartisan group of female senators who led the negotiations that ended the government shutdown, are constitutionally guaranteed equal pay. It's well past time for all women to be paid fairly.
Tarsi Dunlop, member, DC Network, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
As someone who works in the nonprofit education sector, I tend to focus in on elements of the State of the Union that pertain to K-12 education, and to the status of young people in American more broadly. On a rhetorical note, I was thrilled to hear President Obama open the speech with an anecdote about a teacher helping a student. So often, it is the strength of this relationship and the effort and dedication of our teachers that reach those struggling students and help them succeed in the classroom. While education was not a primary focus of last night’s speech, the President did repeat a request from last year’s State of the Union for universal pre-K.
Many state governors are looking at universal pre-K as a possibility to help students start out on more equal footing. This seems to be the strongest acknowledgment we will get from our current government that growing up in poverty can have a negative influence on student learning and academic achievement. I’m familiar with the ‘no excuses’ refrain, and I agree, but the presence of poverty cannot be ignored. While pre-K is a start, kids who grow up in poverty are very unlikely to move out of it over the course of their childhood. We need to factor that into our efforts to support schools with high percentages of low-income students, whether it in wrap-around services, after-school programs or more targeted supports for student learning. Since the full implementation of universal pre-K will rest heavily on the states and cities, the President might also consider how his administration could support such efforts – other than competitive grant funding in the form of another race to the top program.
Zach Komes, Policy Director, George Washington University chapter, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
Globalization and technological change have dramatically transformed our urban economies from hubs for well-paying manufacturing jobs to neighborhoods suffering from extended structural unemployment. The president argued forcefully for a new year-long focus on boosting upward mobility and competitiveness in communities left behind by the economic growth of the past few decades. It's reassuring that the president has put emphasis on universal pre-kindergarten, education spending, job training, tax reform, and broadband access to help our struggling cities. However, specific and innovative urban community development policies were missing from much of the speech. In the end, though, many of the best solutions for our challenged metropolitan regions must come from far outside Washington in statehouses, city halls, college campuses, and our local communities.
Magali Duque, Stanford University, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
Last night's State of the Union address touched on many of the same issues the President has spoken on before, but he approached them in new ways. By using specific stories of ordinary citizens and aligning their struggles with policy arguments, the President is able to appeal to a broader audience – an audience focused on how their own issues fit into this democratic narrative. In that way, his speech was successful. My favorite moments were his appeal to women's equality, access to comprehensive health services including mental health, education innovations, socio-economic mobility, and fair policy. His hopes for women's equality in the economy appealed to not only women, but also to the American people as a whole because he framed "women's success" as "America's success." In fact, this framework was reminiscent of John Stuart Mill's perspective on equality of the sexes in The Subjugation of Women, making an important point about the pervasiveness of gender inequality. Also, I appreciated how the President addressed educational, economic and immigration reform, because he simply laid out the facts for why they are so essential for our nation's progress. His calls to action such as "Congress, give these young people the chance they deserve" and "creating new jobs, not creating new crises," highlight the importance of a unified and unbiased approach towards policy because it "should be the power of our vote not size of our bank account that drives our policy. " The power of democracy should also be driving social progress rather than hindering it, and to do so, it should include more voices of our generation.