President Barack Obama gave the first State of the Union address of his second term Feb. 12 before a joint session of Congress. The address, which is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, is typically given annually and is an opportunity for the president to lay out his policy goals for the coming year. Nielsen, a company that rates the number of viewers of various media, stated that 33.5 million people watched the State of the Union, the lowest number of viewers since former President Bill Clinton’s address in 2000.
Unsurprisingly, much of the speech focused on the economy, a topic not far from the minds of most Americans. The recently (and only temporarily) averted fiscal cliff crisis is still being discussed, and the upcoming sequestration cuts that are due to go into effect in the next few weeks have many worried. These cuts will automatically cut much government spending in areas from entitlements to defense, and many economists have said that they have the potential to push the United States back into a recession. Obama said regarding these issues, “Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep — but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.”
Obama discussed how necessary it is to strengthen the economy, not just for the moment but also for the benefit of future generations, by promoting job growth and a stronger middle class. He criticized many Republican ideals and programs while putting forth his own ideas, but he also called for bipartisanship many times throughout the evening, speaking about how crucial it is for the Republican and Democratic parties to work together to find feasible solutions. A traditional, and quite possibly oversimplified, version of the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats always want to raise taxes while Republicans wish to cut important and necessary entitlement programs. As the president pointed out, “We can’t just cut our way to prosperity.” Obama is correct on this front, and many people, both economists and laypeople, agree with him. The way to strengthen our economy is not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or other programs that provide a social safety net. Neither, however, is the solution simply to raise taxes. Rather, we must reform, in an intelligent way, programs and the parts of them that have been shown to have flaws. That way they may be improved upon and continue to provide for future generations. A reform of the tax system is necessary so that those who make millions of dollars don’t have loopholes that allow them to pay a lower effective tax rate than those who make a fraction of that. The president acknowledged that these things won’t be easy and that no sides of the debate will get everything that they want. Compromise is necessary for the future of this country, though, because, as Obama said, the U.S. cannot continue “drifting from one manufactured crisis to another.” We must face our problems, and the difficulties that accompany them, head-on to fix the issues.
The president touted accomplishments and pointed out many things beneficial to the country, such as the fact that manufacturers including Ford and Caterpillar have brought 500,000 jobs back to the U.S. He discussed the creation of a manufacturing innovation institute last year in Ohio and announced the creation of three more of these “manufacturing hubs.” Obama additionally asked Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs so that the U.S. may once again become a great manufacturing giant. He also talked of the necessity to invest in new ideas, mentioning the benefits that we have reaped from researching the human genome. Obama is absolutely correct about these things. The United States has historically been a nation of technological and scientific advancement and new ideas. It is necessary for our government to continually invest in these things so that we can remain the greatest nation on Earth; we cannot allow the Republicans to cut spending in the areas of research and development, science and innovation.
New solutions must be found for energy consumption, and the president discussed how far we manage to come every year in this area. We produce more oil than we have in the past, we have increased consumption of renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, and we produce more natural gas than we ever have before. In addition to finding better solutions to our energy use, we must also combat climate change. Obama discussed the need for this, as well as finding bipartisan solutions to climate change, using as an example Republican Sen. John McCain and former Democratic and later independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who worked together on this issue in the past. Working together to find solutions for climate change and energy can also be beneficial for the economy, as allowing private companies to be part of the solution and incentivizing alternative energy solutions will create jobs.
Education is an area in which this country has been lacking, and Obama wants to work to make the educational system better. He touted Race to the Top, “a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.” He promoted viable solutions to make schools better by giving them incentives to “better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.” The president also wants to make higher education better and said that “colleges must do their part to keep costs down.” He wants Congress to change the Higher Education Act “so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” As a college student, I appreciate these efforts. At Drexel, our tuition is astronomical, and we should all get behind programs that could make it more affordable. Education is a necessary thing, and it should be more easily accessible for those who want it.
The president signaled his willingness for immigration reform. “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away,” Obama said to Congress. Other topics mentioned by the president included equal pay for equal work, and Obama asked Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act by the end of the year, while he lauded the Senate for passing the Violence Against Women Act earlier that day. He discussed poverty and asked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour, tying it to the cost of living and thus making it a living wage as opposed to a minimum wage.
Immigration is an issue that is often discussed, but little ever seems to get done. Obama’s willingness to work on this issue should be a sign to both parties that the time for reform in the immigration system is now, and certainly both Republicans and Democrats seem ready for change as well, as evidenced by the bipartisan group of eight senators that have recently been meeting and negotiating potential immigration reforms. Equal pay for equal work seems like a no-brainer in this day and age, and a Paycheck Fairness Act should not even be needed. However, if these steps must be taken to ensure that men and women receive the same pay and benefits for doing the same job, we must pass these measures with haste. Raising the minimum wage is a good idea, but in order not to harm small businesses, we must be careful to raise it gradually rather than suddenly, perhaps by tying wage increases to the rise in inflation.
Obama said that we need stronger families and communities to build a stronger middle class. This very well may be true, and this would have been an excellent opportunity for the president to segue into further supporting marriage equality for all citizens, as he supported in his inauguration address. He did not take this opportunity, however, and I, for one, was disappointed. He did manage to throw some support to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community slightly later in his speech, though, when he said, “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families — gay and straight.” While a thin reference, it is nevertheless support for the LGBT community, and this is necessary, especially in the military arena. The president also said that by the end of the year, 34,000 more troops will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, as the military helps to train the Afghan forces to take the lead on their own security. After a decade of war in the Greater Middle East, I applaud this move from the president.
Obama closed his fifth State of the Union with a lengthy section on gun control. This issue is perhaps second only to the economy in the minds of most Americans. In the wake of mass shootings, most recently the terrible tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a majority of Americans support greater restrictions on access to firearms, especially semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles. The president mentioned Sandy Hook, and in an emotional drive to the hearts of all Americans, said that “in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.” Obama gave other examples: Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen who performed at the president’s second inauguration and was shot a week later in a park after school (her parents were personal guests of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union); Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in 2011 at a constituent meeting in Arizona, though she fortunately survived; the shooting last year in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; and others. Obama urged Congress to vote on greater gun control measures, stressing that the families of those affected by gun violence “deserve a vote.” The president himself admitted that legislation cannot stop all acts of violence, but that perhaps it can be reduced in any way possible. I acknowledge that the president is correct; we can’t stop all violence through legislation, but it is our duty as citizens and humans to do all we can to lessen it.
At the end of his address, Obama gave examples of Americans whom we should all try to emulate. One in particular stood out to me: a 102-year-old woman named Desiline Victor, who waited for six hours at her polling place in November so that she could cast her vote in the election. This story was inspirational to me, as voting is one of the innate privileges of being an American, and it is something for which I feel a strong sense of pride and emotion. The president laid out his policy agenda for the coming year, and while it was not perfect, he called for bipartisanship and finding common ground so that we may do our best to solve the problems our nation currently faces. By my count, the president was interrupted 62 times by applause, and many of those times I was sitting at home, applauding our president together with the lawmakers of this country, feeling proud to be an American.
Sean Craig is the co-Chief Copy Editor of the Triangle. He can be contacted at