Striking a populist chord, President Obama entered the chamber of the House of Representatives last night and delivered a striking defiant State of the Union Address. After a longer than usual walk down the center aisle, and giving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was seriously wounded in a shooting and just announced her retirement, a long hug before reaching the lectern; the President set out to draw a clear distinction between his policy priorities and that of Republicans in Congress.
The primary theme of the President’s speech was shared sacrifices and the need to create an environment in the nation where “everybody plays by the same rules.” In a dramatic departure from what has been his reluctance to reference the Bush administration, President Obama made clear the economic calamity he inherited and the unemployment crisis he confronted in 2008. He also pointed out the efforts that he has pursued to create jobs, the jobs that have been created on his watch, and referenced the auto industry as an example of a resurgent U.S. manufacturing sector.
With the economy being issue #1 for Americans, and the pivotal issue of the November election, the President spent considerable time detailing the steps he had taken to address a number of key economic issues. He called for tax credits targeting companies that make a commitment to create jobs in the U.S. and the end of subsidies to firms that are exporting jobs. The President also spoke about protecting the nation’s trade and said he was taking aggressive steps to police Chinese trade practices to prevent the flooding of the U.S. market with cheap and potentially unsafe imports. The President also called for investments in clean energy and an end to oil subsidies. He drew a clear distinction between himself and Republicans on the issue of regulatory oversight of private industry; with the President declaring his intent to hold industry accountable. President Obama referenced practices within the banking industry and health insurers that exploited Americans, and cited the financial sector by declaring “the rest of us are not bailing you out ever again.”
President Obama spoke of the need to reform the nation’s tax code, pointing out the unfairness of Warren Buffet’s secretary paying a higher rate than her billionaire boss. He called for an adjustment of the rate for those earning over $1 million and a cut for families with incomes below $250,000. The President used himself as an example, stating “people like me an awful lot of folks in Congress” should pay their fair share. He pointed out that when millionaires get tax cuts they don’t need, someone has to make up the difference and it is working families and seniors that are carrying the load.
The President also made some strong points on education, calling for all children to remain in school until they are age 18 (in most states students can withdraw at age 16) and giving schools greater creative flexibility. He praised teachers and called for an end to teacher bashing, saying that more leeway should be given to teachers so they would no longer “teach to the test.” The President also challenged institutions of higher education, stating his intention to end federal government support of colleges and universities that are raising student tuition and fees excessively.
President Obama referenced the nation’s security, saying the country has an “iron clad” commitment to Israel and praising the diplomatic efforts aimed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He also stated “I will take no option off the table in reference to Iran.” The President hailed the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and spoke of the preliminary steps being taken to begin the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. He also claimed significant progress in the fight against al Qaeda and noted the sweeping changes in Libya and signs of imminent change in Syria.
With gridlock in Congress becoming standard operating procedure, the President lamented the existence of a “perpetual campaign” on Capitol Hill and challenged Congress to take measures to see that business is conducted. He noted the debate over raising the debt ceiling and the delay in getting judicial nominations approved; calling again for a new rule to mandate that nominations to the federal bench get an up or down vote within 90 days. President Obama also called on Congress to stop “insider trading” among members and prevent lawmakers from investing in businesses over which they have oversight.
The speech was clearly stamped by election year politics but it represented perhaps the clearest articulation of President Obama’s governing philosophy and drew a stark contrast with the field of Republican presidential hopefuls.