Last night, President Obama gave his 6th and second-to-last State of the Union (SOTU) address. Before a new Congress led by Republicans, Cabinet Secretaries, the First Lady and many guests, he proclaimed that while the first 15 years of this Century have been marked by terror, war and recession,“the shadow of crisis has passed and the State of the Union is strong.” The President touted progress in education, manufacturing, economic growth and unemployment numbers that are lower today than before the recession, as indications that the country has rebounded in spite of adversity. With a healthy recovery in progress, the President used this nationally televised speech to ask Congress to look now to ensure that the recovery doesn’t leave anyone behind and builds a stronger economy for the future.
In order to ensure that American families and not just the wealthiest or corporations are benefitting from the recovery, President Obama argued for the adoption of “middle class economics.” He explained that this notion requires that all Americans be given a fair shot and that the country as a whole prospers when everyone is given the chance to succeed.
To level the playing field, Obama proposed affordable child care programs, paid sick leave requirements and equal pay for women. In order to ensure that families are able to continue to succeed in the future, he argued for making education more accessible through his free community college proposal to make training available to all Americans to generate the workforce necessary to fill the 2 out of 3 positions that will require some college by the end of the decade. And, to give American companies the tools they need to create these jobs. Obama urged Congress to invest in research and infrastructure and open up new export opportunities.
While many of these themes were evident in the SOTUs of years past, the tone this time around was more reflective of a President with no more elections before him. Nowhere in his speech was this more evident than in a now-famous unscripted moment when he responded to sarcastic applause by reminding the audience that he already won both of his elections or when he challenged Members of Congress opposed to a raise in the minimum wage to try to care for a family on a $15,000 yearly salary.
Possibly the biggest take away from last night’s speech is that President Obama intends to move forward on his policy priorities despite the shift in Congressional power. He warned lawmakers last night that while he is happy to work together to address issues such as immigration, education, international relations and research (such as his precision medicine initiative) and he would seek out their ideas, he would veto any bill that he sees as threatening to the recovery for middle class citizens. He also gave no apologies for acting on his own where he had to on immigration and Cuban relations and indicated that he would use his authority where necessary to promote the welfare of the country when Congress fails to act.
In some ways, this SOTU kicked off the 2016 Presidential election cycle, allowing potential candidates the opportunity to practice their stump speeches. Some pundits see last night’s events as a precursor for continued gridlock, while others view shared power between the parties as a path forward. Either way, we all will be watching closely to see which, if any, of these policies will move forward over the next two years.