As President Obama delivered his third State of the Union address, we asked Fellows and staff from the Four Freedoms Center, Campus Network, and Pipeline to weigh in with their thoughts on what they wanted to hear and how the speech matched up:
Ellen Chesler, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute:
"Since Obama's speech was so overtly political and partisan, challenging Republicans on basic principles, I was actually surprised at first that it contained so few explicitly 'gendered' references. Candidate Obama, after all, can only win a second term handily if he woos back the independent women voters who favored him by such a wide margin in 2008, but then abandoned congressional Democrats in the midterms over their disenchantment with his handling of the economy.
Granted, the speech had a predictable shout-out to 'equal pay' and a coy but definitely pre-meditated reference to the owners of small businesses as 'shes,' not 'hes,' which reminded us of my very favorite little-known employment statistic -- that women-owned businesses employ more people in this country than all the Fortune 500 companies combined.
But by and large, Obama eschewed the potential divisiveness of identity politics in favor of a few overarching themes: I inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, but we've created millions of new jobs since I've been here; after eight years of Republican rule, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater in this country, but I will end this extreme and unsustainable inequality; and I took on two wars, but today not a soldier remains in combat in Iraq, American troops are leaving Afghanistan, Bin Laden is dead, and his henchmen are in retreat.
And this may be the wiser strategy. The great majority of elections since 1984 have seen a sizable gender gap, with woman endorsing the government activism and commitment to fair play that Democrats represent. There have been only two exceptions: 2010, when the economy tanked, and 2002, when national security trumped all other issues after 9/11. Reminding those women that they and their families will be far better off and a whole lot safer under Democrats is really all candidate Obama needed to say about the State of the Union."
Suzanne Kahn, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
"Last night's speech was full of really interesting and exciting proposals. But in a speech that was full of fairly detailed policy suggestions, the one mention of equal pay for equal work for women was remarkably flimsy. President Obama said women should earn equal pay for equal work, but gave no further detail on how to make that happen. This is an issue that has been on the table for half a century, yet women still earn about 77 cents for every dollar men earn.
At this point, we know there are a range of policies that would help close this gap -- everything from more affordable childcare to stronger rules that allow women to discover wage discrimination and sue for damages. But President Obama did not point to any of these policies last night. He didn't tell us how he wanted to make his stated desire for equal pay become a reality. Without concrete proposals, it's hard to see how this rhetoric will become anything more than that this year. That's too bad, because women have demanded and needed stronger equal pay protections for decades."
Minjon Tholen, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
"A State of the Union address at the beginning of an election year means high stakes for an incumbent president. Sandwiched between the country's military accomplishments and foreign policy strategies, President Obama delivered a well-crafted speech that redefined American values to include fair play and equal opportunity, shared responsibility, working together, and having each other's backs. His repeated call for receiving bills proposed by Congress was his critique of polarizing, ego-driven, and stalled negotiations that were meant to discredit the Obama administration rather than to do what is best for the American people. The president's attitude and words were energetic, clear, defiant, strong, and optimistic; I want to see this character and backbone reflected throughout his campaign and second term, and for it to be translated into actions and innovative policies.
I especially appreciated Obama's dedication to accessible and effective education and health care, tax and government reform, and gender equality. I was happy to hear statements such as 'Women should earn equal pay for equal work,' 'I won't allow insurance companies to charge women differently than men,' and 'We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings -- men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews.' I am concerned about the lack of proposed concrete actions and comprehensive policy changes to accomplish these things. Still, Obama may be the most feminist president this country has known thus far. And who's next -- Hilary Clinton? On that note, seeing Secretary Clinton's strong and positive presence at the SOTU makes an Obama-Clinton ticket for this year's campaign a tempting thought. Not only could it reenergize the campaign and reinforce the legitimacy and competency of the administration, it would also be an even stronger force to reckon with, which is something we will surely need this election cycle."
Thomas Ferguson, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute and Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Boston:
"Some of the president's proposals are intriguing, but they are hard to assess until we see details -- the mortgage refinancing program above all. I don't see any reason why the attorney general needs to be assisted by state attorneys general in investigating mortgage fraud. The latter have spearheaded all serious efforts to rein in the banks; this new federal/state initiative looks like an effort to curb the more vigorous state efforts.
The president's words were clear but only sometimes reassuring. It is fine to talk exports and jobs, but the heart of those programs are mostly special subsidies to business. It would be far better for all of us if the president abandoned his fixation on the deficit for the next few years and focused on sustaining total demand in the economy instead of myriad special subsidies. The proposals on political money are weak indeed; the president is really punting on that issue, especially the role of secret funds. And there is deep contradiction between the president's emphasis on education and the actual conditions of the states. Most education funding from the federal government gets channeled through states and localities. But they are broke. And while it's fine to cut interest rates on student loans, the real problem is that students are assuming way too much debt. A useful federal government initiative on public higher education has to address that. One also has to say that the rhetoric about the United States being more respected than ever is, well, politics.
One of the most striking characteristics of the European financial crisis has been the muted role of the U.S., and there is no mystery about why that is: the U.S. cannot afford to contribute much of anything except Federal Reserve swap lines. Those are important, but it's a long drop from the role the U.S. played in previous financial crises."
Taylor Jo Isenberg, Deputy Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"No one doubts that the president is an oratory genius. His ability to deliver a speech makes dreamers out of pessimists and believers out of skeptics. And after the last three years, it's easy to argue that there are plenty of the latter out there, particularly among Millennials. Every single issue he tackled in the State of the Union has long-term implications for our generation -- from worrying trends in college affordability to frightening statistics on a shrinking middle class. The stakes are high for us. We get that.
We also get that governing is hard. There is frustration with undelivered promises and dispiriting inaction on key issues, but we understand that nation building takes time and that it takes all of us, every day. President Obama summoned the fiery, activist candidate that inspired millions in 2008, and it was a reminder of the inspiration we have to tap into -- and the civic responsibility we must commit to -- if we are to continue to work towards a more progressive society. The speech was powerful at some points, flat at others; it stated important truths, but shirked difficult topics. What's more important is whether the country decides to take his final message and hold fast to the truth that this nation is 'great because we get each other's back.' Where the hope and promise now lies is the fact that we, as a generation, definitely get that."
Reese Neader, National Policy Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"President Obama effectively laid out a new economic blueprint in his State of the Union address. This long-term vision reflects his narrative of 'winning the future' and is a sensible plan for how the United States can promote shared prosperity in the early 21st century. There are seven fundamental issues of 'nation building' that we must address to move our country forward: Investment in every stage of education so that American children can grow up to compete on an even playing field in the global economy and have the skills necessary to grow American jobs. Investment in innovation so that U.S. businesses can brandish a competitive edge in the global economy and U.S. households can power themselves with American-made energy.
1. Investment in every stage of education so that American children can grow up to compete on an even playing field in the global economy and have the skills necessary to grow American jobs.
2. Investment in innovation so that U.S. businesses can brandish a competitive edge in the global economy and U.S. households can power themselves with American-made energy.
3. Investment in infrastructure that allows the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge in the global economy and increases economic opportunity for all Americans.
4. Financial reform that effectively regulates excessive market risk, creates new markets for economic growth and job creation, and ensures U.S. households and businesses get the support they deserve.
5. Tax reform that rewards U.S. companies for innovation and job creation, while ensuring that every person pays their fair share into the system.
6. Immigration reform that favors well-educated, high-skilled workers and provides reasonable opportunities for undocumented workers to obtain citizenship.
7. Governmental reform that will allow all of these goals to be achieved much more efficiently and effectively.
The president's fundamental vision is that the federal government has a positive role to play in our lives: ensuring that 'everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.' His blueprint for change is designed to steer our country toward a new era of shared prosperity. Working towards that vision with focus and vigor is the only way that our country can 'win' the 21st century."
Winston Lofton, National Field Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"The president did not spend much time talking about the 'State' of the 'Union.' There was a sprinkling of typifying American stories and a nod to widespread frustration with the culture of Congress and money in politics. There was no acknowledgement of the nearly one in two Americans who are not economically secure, the damage our food and energy infrastructure is doing to people and the planet, or the powerlessness Americans feel in the face of collective challenges. He paid no heed to fresh instances of institutionalized Islamophobia, or to the compounding inadequacies of housing, schools, jobs, and criminal justice facing urban and rural communities. He book-ended his address not by focusing on the plight, nor the brilliance, of our mothers, sisters, and cousins, but by focusing on the might and glory of our military. This was not so much a 'State of the Union' as a 'State of the Empire.'
That's because last night, the president did not speak to me. He spoke to members of Congress as if they were -- or at least as if they represented -- rich, powerful elites whose primary concerns were beating plutocrats and oligarchs in other countries and continuing to be the world's biggest, baddest bully. Even in acknowledging the dismal state of American education, he discussed how that system is inhibiting Bill Gates's access to a productive workforce, not failing our children and parents. His solutions were small (e.g. addressing "insider trading" as a solution to money in politics) or outmoded (for example, his nostalgic focus on the need for a manufacturing-heavy labor market).
Ultimately I'm a pragmatist, and I know that actually improving the material realities for Americans on the ground is far more important than articulating wishful thoughts of a utopian future on high. I appreciate the need for trust, constructive dialogue, and the negotiation of overlapping consensus in Congress. This just wasn't the place for it. This was the place for the president to set the framework in which that negotiation takes place, to highlight the contours of what's right and wrong with our Union today, to tell Aunt Nancy that he understands her pain and that there is a way forward. Instead, he took a center-right set of assumptions as a frame and attempted to project Candidate Obama as the reasonable convener with some okay ideas.
The State of the Union address was another reminder that we can't look to one man to solve our problems from afar. We need a lively democracy with distributed, engaged, savvy leadership in synagogues, community colleges, and break rooms across the country."
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Kristen Tullos, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
"As I expected, President Obama did not have as much to say about housing, although he mentioned it in several places. There was some speculation before the SOTU that he might unveil a new pilot program to convert vacant homes owned by Fannie and Freddie into rental property, which would put those properties to productive use and satiate some of the demand that is driving a steady increase in rental prices. Alas, we'll have to wait for another speech. He did mention a plan, yet to be unveiled, that will give every homeowner about $3,000 in savings through refinancing their mortgages. Like much of the SOTU, the plan sounds good in theory (and certainly in President Obama's tone and inflection) but lacks the details that will determine the outcome. His administration has tried to help homeowners many times before, but each program fell short of its purported goal. One positive thing I took away is that President Obama wants to charge the large banks a fee to fund the proposal. I strongly support making banks help homeowners, although I believe we should go much further than paying a (likely) small fee. This jives with my basic ideas of fairness and justice, and I expect it will resonate with many Americans.
At the same time, I took issue with the many times he used the terms 'responsible homeowners' and 'responsible families who want to buy a home.' It's like trying to categorize the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. Good luck. Investigations done after the housing crisis have shown that most of the subprime lending was driven by investors and especially brokers who had every incentive to put unqualified people into complex, risky loans while keeping none of the risk. In addition, lending is an area where there is a huge asymmetry of information. I hope that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, also mentioned by President Obama, will simplify and clarify lending documents."
Alan Smith, National Program Director, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"Where was Obamacare? In last night's State of the Union, Barack Obama started off laying out major wins from his presidency: Soldiers are out of Iraq; Bin Laden is dead; even Dodd-Frank's Wall Street reforms got a shout-out. But he didn't mention Obamacare even once over the course of the evening.
If he's already started running on his record, why not mention the ways that health care reform has already started to have positive effects? Why not highlight the impact of one of the few huge pieces of legislation that he got passed? I don't love the idea of treating the State of the Union as a campaign speech, but there are a lot of positive things to mention.
Around 2.5 million young adults have insurance now that didn't have insurance before. Another 2.5 million senior citizens saved a few hundred dollars each on their prescription drug costs in the 'doughnut hole' that Obama closed. There's a lot more -- hard numbers that would serve as good applause lines in the SOTU.
He also could have used it as a moment for teaching viewers about the many big picture changes and savings that are still to come in 2014. I worked hard to make the health care bill as awesome as it could be, and while I was disappointed with some of the things that the final legislation left on the table (cough cough, public option, cough) I did feel it was a signature achievement."
Rajiv Narayan, Senior Fellow for Health Care, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"The State of the Union is stronger than the president gives it credit for. While following the nostalgic trip back through a year that featured economic recovery, an end to war, and an end to many dictatorships, I was waiting for President Obama to underscore the underdog story of health care reform. Despite obstructionism in the legislature, noncompliance in some states, and uncertainty in the court system, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has managed to make great strides. It's no small feat that 2.5 million young Americans have gained health coverage in a little over a year. But I am not surprised discussion of health care reform did not make the final draft. The elephants in the room would be less than receptive to news of success. Perhaps I am alone in thinking public controversy is not all bad. Since the last mention of health care in a 2009 congressional address was greeted by the now-immortalized 'You lie!' from Rep. Joe Wilson, we've learned that outbursts are more often remembered for their silliness than their salience. When the whole world is watching, the administration should stick to all its guns, not just those that are universally popular."
Dante Barry, Chapter Services Coordinator and Summer Academy Coordinator, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"At the end of the president's address last night, he reminded us that the story of this country is much bigger than politics. He noted that this country wasn't built by any one person; it required a team effort and a shared vision. At this point, Congress is in a political deadlock where partisanship is obstructing action. I am so proud that the president spoke with conviction and confidence. He reminded me that the work that Campus Network members do is a part of the journey forward that he mentions, and that it will strengthen the state of the country as they work with their communities to address their challenges."
Nick Santos, Fellow, Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline:
"In general, the president's tone was very optimistic and success-oriented, which is to be expected. I think he made excellent use of phrasing that demanded legislation on his desk that he promises to sign, allowing him to come across as action-oriented in comparison to Congress' obstruction. His proposal to take savings from the war and put that toward paying down the debt and building infrastructure is a great idea and a strong message.
As for energy policy, the president played to the right wing in his chosen messages and devoted significant time to fossil fuels. He played the security card most heavily on energy, making mention of the Department of Defense's efforts and reductions in foreign energy. He used the Republicans' message of ‘all of the above' for energy, talked first about expansion of offshore oil drilling, and focused heavily on choosing natural gas (a fossil fuel) for being cleaner than other fossil fuels.
When the president got to clean energy, he kept with the optimistic tone of the rest of his speech and didn't mention the problems we face, like waning fossil fuel supplies or climate change. This is a huge problem for issues that need to be talked about to be credible. He did, however plug some practical solutions to these problems that are economically sensible, create jobs, and are populist. He mentioned policies like expansion of energy efficiency programs, use of public lands for clean energy, clean energy tax credits, and ending oil subsidies. His most controversial energy policy was only a brief mention of a clean energy standard.
My feeling is that this was not the kind of ambition we need on as vital an issue as energy, but it is the kind of compromise I expect from Obama. It is a position that delicately straddles the line on policies that compete with one another. It's a pragmatic approach to passing energy policies and may be more effective in the short run, but a more visionary approach to energy that addressed our greatest needs would have involved a call for a cap on our carbon emissions to stem the greatest effects of global warming, a commitment to shutting down old, dirty coal plants, skipping the rhetoric on expanding fossil fuels, commitments of federal government agencies outside of Defense to buying clean energy, and more time detailing the clean energy policies that he mentioned in passing. Many of those are good policies that would help encourage our young clean energy economy to grow."
Erika Solanki, Senior Fellow for Economic Development, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network:
"What I found most significant was the president's reference to the importance of job market integration with community colleges. In the midst of troubling economic circumstances with ever-more powerful competition from countries like India and China, it's critical for America to ensure that its young adults have access to the education that gives them the skills to compete on the world market. Complementary to access to higher education is the issue of optimization. We need to reinvigorate our economy by increasing efficiency and strategizing potential within community colleges. It is imperative that community college students are able to translate their scholastic training into real earnings.
Ultimately, community college educations can become powerful mechanisms for economic mobility, however, in order to achieve this ideal, we need to bridge the gap between community colleges and employers. Currently, more than two thirds of community college students fail to complete their community college education or fail to transfer to a four-year school. In order to utilize post-secondary education as an economic tool, it is critical that community colleges work with employers to illuminate the immense possibilities and dividends that can become apparent upon successful completion. By more actively and directly connecting community college programs with career-driven professional tracks, we can institute generational socio-economic transformations among many families."
Rahul Rekhi, Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network member, Rice University chapter:
"This week marked the start of the Lunar New Year -- a clean slate, a fresh beginning, the start of something, well, new. But what was compelling about last night's presidential address was neither its novelty nor its unorthodoxy. Indeed, for all of its grandiose trappings, for all its hubbub and stately decorum, this State of the Union -- and, by extension, the president's policy palette -- can be summed up quite neatly in just two words: common sense.
Because ultimately, at least from this millennial wonk's perspective, the proposals President Obama advocated largely seem to be just that: common sense. Ending discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, as done under the Affordable Care Act? A no-brainer. Increased student aid? Unambiguously valuable. Corporate tax reform? Not even a question. Increased investments in medical research and basic science? You guessed it -- just plain common sense. In just a little over an hour, the president articulated many of the most pressing policy concerns that remain most troubling to Millennials: burdensome student debt, the staggeringly high unemployment rate, and continued access to health care, just to name a few -- and proffered solutions that were, for the most part, both bipartisan and substantive.
Yet, despite this, it is unlikely, given the current standstill state of Congress, that more than just a few -- if any -- of these must-have solutions will be signed into law this year. Whether that's due to the president's shortcomings as a negotiator, historically unparalleled Republican intransigence, or the intrinsically unyielding nature of partisan gridlock is unclear. One thing, however, is for sure: the limiting reagent in Washington right now is not ideas, but action, and until that changes, the American Dream alluded to tonight may, for my generation and those that follow, remain just that -- a dream. 2012 may well be the Year of the Dragon, but it might just be remembered for a chimera of an entirely different sort."