President Obama 2015 State of the Union

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In his sixth State of the Union address, President Obama projected a sense of decency and common sense fairness and reminded us that he can make a powerful case for good government. The Republicans seemed almost irrelevant — until you remembered that the country just voted to put them in control of both chambers of Congress. Obama made some big omissions and he got some things plain wrong, but overall, a good speech that helps open up important conversations.

The Good:

  • He made a strong case for how government helps people and can help people more. The free community college proposal is concrete and right and smart. He also gave an important boost to the growing movements at the state and city levels that aren’t waiting around for Congress to provide paid sick leave and maternity leave.
  • He boldly touted his fresh new policy on Cuba: “When something doesn’t work for 50 years, it might be time to change it.” How often do you here that in Washington?
  • He made SOTU history by being the first POTUS to utter the words “transgender” and “bisexual people” in a moving plea for the protection of these individuals’ rights.
  • He made a strong case for using diplomacy before military force—in Iran, and everywhere.
  • He threw down the gauntlet on the minimum wage: “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
  • Good populist lines about the tax code loopholes that benefit the rich and a vow to veto any attempts to undo Wall Street regulations.
  • A forceful two minutes on climate change: “And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
  • The story of the Minneapolis newlyweds who bounced back from the recession—who isn’t a sucker for that kind of thing?
  • The centrality of values that led him to say we must prohibit torture and speak out against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim speech.

The Bad:

  • Fair trade activists have learned to plug their ears when Obama shifts from supporting wage increases and fighting climate change to pushing trade agreements that help corporations drive down labor and environmental standards everywhere. This year the pain was heightened by fear-mongering about China.
  • Despite his strong words on climate change, he continued to plug his “all of the above energy policy,” which includes fossil fuels.
  • His defense of our use of drones as “properly constrained.” Imagine how that line went over with the families of Pakistani civilian victims. Obama has ordered many more drone strikes than President George W. Bush.
  • It is wrong for Obama to demand Congressional authorization for an illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq and Syria that he’s already started, especially since he’s insisted in the past that he doesn’t actually need a new authorization. What he wants is a fig leaf, issued long after a proper debate should have happened, and he shouldn’t get it. He also said the war in Afghanistan was “over,” just a few months after surreptitiously extending it at least another year. That was worthy of many more jeers than it got.

The Missed Opportunities:

  • What, not a word on racism? He did say a few sentences on Ferguson at the end and called for criminal justice reform, but he missed a key opportunity to contribute to the best conversation the nation has had on race in years.  He’s done it before. Why is he skirting the topic now?
  • While his new proposals to tax the 1% and put funds into child care and higher education are commendable, he could have said more about why inequality is both morally wrong and bad for society and bad for the economy. He’s done better elsewhere.
  • It was moving to see Ana Zamora, a DACAmented DREAMer, sitting with the First Lady. But he should have made a stronger case for immigration reform—an area where there might be some potential for bipartisanship.
  • Even though he mentioned a few communities where he has mourned with the victims of mass shootings/our nation’s lax gun regulations, he failed to utter the word “guns.”

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