I wasn’t able to watch President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night–I’m in rehearsal. So I DVRed it, and watched it this afternoon–just finished, in fact. I also did not watch the Republican response to the SOTU, because, geez, there were five of them and life’s too short.
A few initial impressions: Washington must be getting hammered by the flu right now. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to it, coming off a recent flu bug myself, but every break in the speech, you heard coughing and hacking and wheezing. I imagine the calculation going on in some peoples’ heads, ‘I’m sick as a dog, and want to stay home and guzzle down the Nyquil. On the other hand, how will it look if I blow off the State of the Union?’ I wondered about John Boehner, in fact–early in the speech, the poor man sure seemed to fighting off something–a cough or a sneeze or something. But he’s Speaker of the House; he’s gotta go.
And there were the usual theatrics; the wildly enthusiastic applause for almost everything, the multiple standing O’s. The phony jubilation when the Prez mentioned something you believed in, and the brush-it-off perfunctory applause when he said something you disagreed with. The President seemed confident and relaxed; he’s done this before, obviously. They had the usual ‘ordinary Americans’ used as stage props–no one seemed to mind much. And far and away the most moving moment of the night was the extended applause given to Army Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, a terribly wounded soldier who the President mentioned as an example of American grit and determination. Lovely, and well deserved, Sgt.
Otherwise I thought it was sort of a shaming exercise type speech. It was clearly addressed to Congress, to a new Congress, and a Congress that is aware that the last Congress really was a fail. The President’s approval ratings aren’t high right now, but Congress’ approval ratings really could not be lower; they’re around 13 percent, worse than colonoscopies, traffic jams, head lice, used car salesmen and cockroaches. I wouldn’t say the President exactly scolded them, but he did twit them a bit. The tone was light, but the message was clear–it’s time for you guys to do your jobs.
So every section of the speech followed a pattern. The President would mention an issue–low wages, for example. He would point to the problem. He would then list some things some businesses and private citizens are doing about it. He would describe some things that he could and would do, within the limited scope of the executive branch. And then he’d ‘invite Congress to join him’ in passing federal regulation on the issue.
So, after pointing to a CEO of a pizza chain that had given all his employees raises to 10 bucks an hour, the President mentioned that he would do the same for any private contractors who wanted federal contracts; require that they pay $10.10 an hour. And then he pointed to two Congresspeople who had a bill they were trying to pass to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. So. . . how ’bout it, guys?
Over and over, the pattern was repeated: here’s something that needs doing, here’s what private citizens are doing, here’s what I’m doing about it; your turn, step up, pass a bill, take action. “Let’s make progress together,” he’d say. “Let’s take action together.”
On some issues, the President frankly sounded like a Republican. My brother (a businessman who is about the most moderate Republican you’ll ever meet, and a sensible and intelligent man if ever there was one), noticed this too: Obama calling for lower corporate taxes, a simpler tax code, a new kind of IRA, simpler business regulations. He sounds like a Republican on those issues. Tactically, that’s smart, I think–these are areas where he might be able to get some cooperation with House Republicans. And normally, that might be sort of true. But with this bunch of House Republicans? I’m pretty skeptical. Still, the President’s right to look for any opportunity for genuine bi-partisan cooperation.
Not for the first time, the President mentioned what he calls hi-tech manufacturing hubs. The idea seems to be that companies that want to start hi-tech plants go to local community colleges, and help develop degree programs that will give people the skills to work for them. It’s worked in North Carolina and Ohio, and he wants to set up six more similar hubs. If Congress would fund it, he thinks this could happen all over the country. Seems like an idea worth trying. Anyway, this happened over and over in the speech: ‘business is doing X, I’m planning to do X plus a little Y, time for Congress to fully fund X, try Y, and begin implementing Z.’
On my Facebook, there was a lot of enthusiasm for this line:
Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode.
The simple fact is that women work at low paying, minimum wage jobs much more often than men do, and often have child care concerns as well. Other countries handle this much better than we do in the US. For all our rhetoric about ‘Family Values’ in this country, we’re not leaders, internationally, in implementing family friendly employment policies. The President is right to call attention to it. You may scoff at the idea of mandating that McDonald’s, say, give paid maternity leave to a 28 year old single mom who works the counter or in the kitchen. In fact, though, that kind of situation is precisely where federal regulation is most needed.
I want to read more about his MyRA proposal. He called it, a new kind of savings bond, and described it as having no risk, and offering a decent return. I’m skeptical about any no-risk investment promising a ‘decent return.’ But let’s see some details.
My favorite moment in the speech, though, was his mention of Obamacare. First, he described the real-life situation of a woman who bought health coverage on the exchanges, then had a heart condition requiring surgery two days later. Previous to Obamacare, she would have been impoverished–medical bankruptcy would have been her only option. As it is, she’ll recover, and without destroying her family financially. Then the President said this:
Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first forty were plenty. We got it. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.
Well done, Mr. President. In fact, we’re seeing the political battles of 2014 already shaping up. And the Obamacare rollout was bad, no question about it, and gave Republicans an issue that they seemed almost giddy to be running on. But the law is working much much better now. Already, 9 million Americans have coverage that didn’t have it before. That’s going to increase, by a lot. And it’s fair to say ‘if you oppose this, what do you propose that will accomplish what the ACA accomplishes? What is your alternative?’ So far, we haven’t seen one.
Overall, I thought it was a feisty speech, but not an overly partisan one. It’s easy to be cynical, and when it comes to Congress, I am very very cynical indeed. This was a speech that laid out a progressive agenda, which is very unlikely to lead to Congressional action. But who knows? If Congress can pass a budget (even a lousy one), maybe a minimum wage increase isn’t entirely impossible. Or even some of the other proposals mentioned by the President.