Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State Of The Union: Work, In Progress

Last night's State of the Union address was the kind of incredibly ambitious speech that few Presidents give to begin their second term. President Obama spoke in the tones of a man who knew he has the upper hand on virtually every major topic, from jobs and the economy, to immigration, gun safety, and climate change. From both the current polling, and the obvious fractures between the ridiculous GOP and "tea party" responses, the President's confidence was clearly justified.

The President's speech was, as expected, quite assertive. It was also exactly one hour - neither too long or too short.

It was clear from the beginning that President Obama's address this year would focus a great deal on work, jobs, and the middle class. In addition to mentioning jobs at the outset, he spoke the word "jobs" 45 times during the speech, turning the attention to jobs in virtually every subject.

The political right has long wailed about the deficit, even over the last few years as Americans have overwhelmingly been more concerned about jobs. President Obama knocked down that false meme tonight - hopefully for the last time - when he spoke about the budget, pointedly noting that under his watch, we've already cut the federal deficit by more than $2.5 trillion, through budget cuts as well as tax increases on the wealthiest. He also nailed the biggest problems in our current tax code, noting that common sense demands closing unneeded loopholes before we harm the poorest Americans.

The President also made the logical connection that, to help create more jobs in America, we must invest in America again, on items from infrastructure and clean energy, to how we finance our housing sector, to our education system. He hammered hard the fact that, from preschool to college, America needs to fix not just what and how we teach, but how we fund that education. The President also solidly addressed comprehensive immigration reform, and addressed the Senate's passage of the Violence Against Women Act, and the need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Then he did something unexpected.

The President called for a raise in the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour. Then President Obama pointedly noted that both he and he former Republican opponent Mitt Romney agreed: America's minimum wage should also be tied to the cost of living, to make it a real, true, living minimum wage.

The President then turned to the issue of war, confirming that "over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan," and that, by the end of 2014, the war there will be done. He further noted that Al-Qaeda is now a shadow of its former self, and that America also has other challenges. From trade with Europe, to diplomacy with Iran, to protecting us from cyberwarfare, to being more transparent about how we conduct our wars, the President made it clear through all of these challenges that our defenses would remain strong, for all Americans - even gay Americans - while we cut waste.

Finally, the President addressed one of the biggest issues - gun safety - and he made it clear to gun-happy extremists, like the NRA, that this issue is not going to fade away. They may not like all the gun safety proposals that will be presented in Congress - but for all those affected by gun violence, EVERY legitimate gun safety proposal deserves a vote.

There was a stark contrast. Some Republicans embarrassed themselves by not clapping for voting rights, not standing for veterans, and not even applauding the 102-year-old Florida woman who waited 3 hours and made two trips to cast her ballot last fall. On the other hand, President Obama's address this year was proudly, unabashedly progressive.

This could be seen and heard most clearly, near the end of his address, when he said, "We were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government."

That is what it truly means to choose progress - and, to our mind, what it means to be American citizens, at our best.