Two-thirds of the President’s State of the Union address on January 27, 2010 was expected to focus on the problem of creating jobs in the country, and it did. A gay person’s right to serve in the military would also earn mention, and there would be a stinging rebuke to the United States Supreme Court for a recent decision of theirs allowing corporations to contribute as much as they wish, financially, in elections. This latter comment was said to be a frontal assault on the Supreme Court Justices. Commentators said you’d have to go back 70 years to find such a thing, back to Roosevelt. (Judge Alito was seen visually shaking his head and, —also an unusual thing—he was seen mouthing words to the effect of “He’s wrong,” this year’s version of “You lie.”)
The decision to let corporations contribute to political campaigns, previously prohibited by the McCain/Feingold bill, seems a dangerous one. President Obama planned to take the matter of what he views as their poor decision up publicly during his State of the Union Address, which is also extraordinary.
Obama entered, shaking hands with those along the pathway. The cheers seemed sincere. Bob Schieffer, CBS Chief Washington Correspondent, said, “What an ego-boost,” in commenting on the claps and cheers. Harry Reid (Majority Leader) was seen directly behind the president to his right. The Republicans were told to behave themselves during the State of the Union address. [No “You lie(s)!” tonight, in other words.] The President hugged Timothy Geithner (Secretary of the Treasury) and the camera roamed the room, focusing on no one in particular. No doubt the recent Massachusetts loss of Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat weighed heavy on the minds of the Democrats. For Republicans, it seemed that the loss of the longtime Democratic seat was like blood in the water to a shark or a piranha.
“In fact, they (Congress) need to move on to jobs,” said Katie Couric before the speech began. Half of the party wants him to pivot to jobs and the economy and half likes the fact that he went ‘all in’ (as they say in poker) on Health Care Reform, which Obama said would help the economy and the job situation.
With Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden behind him, the thought was that, tonight, Obama would try to re-connect with the American people and regain his political capital, perhaps squandered on Health Care (and never to be regained?)
“I think we can expect a fiery speech,” said Katie Couric in anticipating the speech’s commencement, noting criticism of Obama for being dispassionate and disconnected. Shots of Michelle Obama in the balcony clad in a deep plum-colored ensemble and surrounded by some outstanding students preceded Obama’s remarks.
“Our constitution declares that, from time to time, the president shall give to America details about the state of our union…they’ve done so in times of prosperity and tranquility, in moments of great strife and great struggle. It’s tempting to look back and assume that our progress was inevitable and America was always destined to succeed,” Obama began. Obama then moved on to mention many of our nation’s flashpoints, dates and times that live on in infamy: Black Tuesday, civil rights workers being beaten, Bull Run and said, “These were the times that tested the strength of our Union. America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation and as one people. Again, we are tested and again we must answer this call.”
RECAP OF STATE OF UNION UPON ASSUMING THE PRESIDENCY
Obama then recapped the state of the nation when he took over. (Summation: really, really bad and on the verge of a Depression.) “So we acted, immediately and aggressively…One in ten Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. For those who already knew poverty, their burden has become that much harder.’ Working harder for less was already the lot of many, said Obama, adding, “So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They’re not news. That’s why I ran for President.” He then mentioned Galesburg, Illinois by name, a small town not far from my own home base (although I listened to him give this speech from Florida, where the locals were wondering if he would mention the Space program (alive or dead?) and where he spent today in Tampa announcing a $3.5 million-dollar rail initiative that will link Miami and Orlando and many other Florida cities in between. (Sure hope the rail system between the Quad Cities, Chicago, and Des Moines is not far behind).
“For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated. Some are angry. They don’t understand why what seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded while hard work on Main Street is not.” The president then added that citizens are tired of the shouting and pettiness. “So we face big and difficult challenges,” said Obama, understating the situation. He urged cooperation in the face of the problems we face and urged that we strive to provide citizens with “a job that pays the bills…Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.” He declared that our people share (d) “a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity.” One woman’s letter was quoted, as she called herself, “Strained but hopeful, struggling, but encouraged.”
“I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight,” said Obama approximately 10 minutes into the speech, to applause from the gallery. (One was tempted to mutter, “That makes one of us.”)
”Despite our hardships, our Union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that embodies their strength.”
“Tonight, I’d like to speak about how, together, we can deliver on that promise. It begins with our economy.” Obama then spoke about the banking crisis that occurred as he entered office. He said, “I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. But when I ran for president I promised I wouldn’t just do what was popular; I would do what was necessary.” The president sketched a scenario where things would have been much worse if the financial rescue had not been implemented, citing the transparency that the Democrats put in place upon assuming office. (McCain would later disagree about this transparency of government on Larry King’s late-night show).
“We’ve recovered most of the money we spent on the banks, most but not all.” He then mentioned the fee on the biggest banks he proposed to recover the rest still owed. (Joe Biden was smiling like a shark at this point.) “If they can afford big bonuses, they can afford to repay the consumers who rescued them in their time of need.”
“As we stabilized the financial system, we also took steps to stabilize the economy: extended unemployment benefits, COBRA uptick, 25 different tax cuts for 95% of working families, for small businesses, for first-time home buyers, for 8 million American paying for college,” said Obama. (“I thought I’d get some applause on that one,” said Obama, as a small joke towards the non-applauding Republicans.)
“As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend, “ and he talked about how income taxes have not been raised ‘by a single dime.” Two million Americans working right now were cited, 200,000 in construction and clean energy; 300,000 teachers; many first responders and firemen and police officers were mentioned as proof of the bill’s efficacy. “The Recovery Act, also known as the Stimulus Bill. Economists on the left and the right say this bill has helped save jobs and avert disaster.” (I saw a recent television investigation into the making of signs in Ohio that seemed to suggest no jobs were created by making the signs, but many dollars were spent.)
Phoenix, Philadelphia, a single teacher who did not lose her job after having previously been riffed were all cited as signs of the Stimulus Bill’s success. Obama then cited slow signs of recovery. “But I realize for every success story there are stories of men and women who wake up not knowing where their next paycheck will come from. That is why jobs must be our Number One focus in 2010 and that is why I’m calling for a new jobs bill tonight,” said Obama.
“Now, the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America’s businesses,” said Obama. “But government can create the conditions for businesses to expand and hire more workers.” He proposed that the focus be on small businesses, the kind where an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream and succeeds through sheer grit and determination. He cited Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Elyria, Ohio, saying that banks are mostly lending (again) to big businesses, not small ones. “So, tonight, I’m proposing that we take $30 billion of the money that big banks have repaid and use it to help small business get the credit they need to stay afloat.” Also, a Small Business Tax Credit was proposed for those businesses that hire new workers or raise wages. President Obama also pledged to eliminate all capital gains taxes on new equipment purchases.
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS & ENERGY
“Next,” said Obama, “we can put the United States to work today creating the infrastructure of tomorrow.” Citing other countries that lead us, he noted that he is coming down where I am now (Tampa, Florida) tomorrow on a visit to announce a big rail construction project. He proposed putting more Americans to work building clean energy facilities and giving rebates to Americans who make their homes more energy-efficient; he proposed slashing tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, giving them, instead, to companies that keep jobs here in the United States.
Obama remarked on the bill that the House has passed that creates some of these steps and urged the Senate to do the same, adding, “and I know they will.” “People are out of work. They’re hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay.”
He then added that these steps wouldn’t make up for the 7 million jobs lost over the past two years. “We can’t afford another so-called economic expansion from the so-called ‘lost decade’ where jobs grew more slowly than ever before, a time when prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation.” Obama then cited all the things he’s been told since taking office: “How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? You see Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse.” He then cited China, Germany and India as countries that are putting more emphasis on math and science and putting more emphasis on clean energy. “I do not accept second place for the United States of America,” he said, to tumultuous applause. Nearly all stood.
“As hard as it may be, as contentious as the debates ay become, it’s time to get serious about the problems that are hampering our growth. One place to start is serious financial reform. I’m interested in protecting our economy.” He went on to talk about the benefits of a strong financial system, but added that we must guard against the same recklessness that nearly brought down our entire financial system. “We can’t allow financial institutions to take risks that threaten our entire economy.” Again, he cited the House having passed a bill that addresses these problems, and said he would send the bill back “until we get it right.” (“We’ve gotta’ get it right.”)
Next, we need to encourage American innovation.” Commenting on the investment(s) in cancer treatments and solar cells and energy, he said that we could see the results of last year’s investments in clean energy in both North Carolina and California. These were states that created clean energy jobs. The president called for “A new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country,”. Nearly everyone applauded when he said, “It means making tough decisions about opening off-shore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in bio-fuels and clean coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill that will finally make clean energy the kind that will make it profitable in America.”
“The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”
Obama then said he set a goal of doubling exports in the next five years, which, he said, would increase jobs in America. ‘We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations seek trade deals, we will lose the opportunity to create jobs on our shores. But, realizing those benefits means also enforcing the fact that our trading partners must ‘play by the rules.’” Obama suggested strengthening the U.S.’s Asian markets and continuing to increase trade with places like Colombia and Panama.
Obama also urged investing in educating our people. He wants to reward reform that raises student achievement and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, nodded his head in agreement. “The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” (Applause.) “And in this country the success cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.” Obama said. “In this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job,” as he urged the revitalization of the community college system. He talked about the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies to banks for giving student loans and said, instead, take that money and give $10,000 to parents for increased education spending. Students only must repay 10% of student loans and would have the debt forgiven in 20 years. He urged colleges and universities to start cutting their own costs, as well. VP Biden is chairing a committee to work on this issue for middle-class families. He talked about working to lift the value of homes and cited the $1500 (on average) savings on mortgage payments. “And it is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform.”
HEALTH CARE REFORM
“Let’s clear a few things up,” said Obama to laughter. “I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative issue under my belt and, by now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on health care because it was good politics” (Laughter). He went on to recite specific instances of people who are “just one illness away from financial ruin.” He stated that we are closer than ever to bringing health care to every American and explained how the reform bill would protect Americans from the worst practices of the insurance industry. He thanked wife Michelle Obama, who is going to help tackle the problem of childhood obesity. (“She gets embarrassed,” said Obama, to chuckles from the audience, when he recognized his wife in the balcony, a First Lady whose approval ratings have been soaring even as her husband’s have been dropping.)
Obama talked about his health care program as cutting costs and cited the office of the budget as saying his plan would bring down the deficit by as much as one trillion dollars over the next decade. “Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated the more skeptical people became.” He went on to talk about the American people’s skepticism and cynicism and he talked about how premiums continue to go up and patients continue to lose their care. “I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this Chamber.”
“There’s a reason why health care workers consider this a vast improvement over our current system,” he then said. Throwing out a challenge to the Republicans who have stalled and refused to vote for reform, he said, “If anyone has a better plan, lemme’ know.” Senator Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader was seen applauding and on his feet. “Don’t walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together to finish the job for the American people. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done.”
GOVERNMENT SPENDING FREEZE/NATIONAL DEBT
“Now, even as health care reform would reduce our deficit, it’s not enough to dig us out of a massive fiscal hole we’ve dug ourselves into.” He started the discussion of government spending by saying that, at the beginning of 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion dollars. “By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next few years. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion dollar hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door.” (McCain, in the audience, was seen saying something to the man to his right. It may have been what he said to Larry King on his show later that night, when he said that Obama must quit blaming Bush for the deficit(s).)
“We took office amid a crisis, and our efforts to avoid another Depression have added another trillion dollars to our national debt. I’m absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do.” He then cited belt-tightening that both individuals across the land and the federal government should do.
Specific steps to pay off the trillion-dollar economy rescue:
1) Freeze government spending for 3 years (with some sectors exempted, such as national security.)
2) Medicare, Medicaid, national security not affected, but other discretionary income will be affected. A budget will be enforced, and, if necessary, he vowed to enforce it through veto. He explained that this budget would be for next year.
3) “We will continue to go through the budget line-by-line and page-by-page. We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. Oil companies, investment fund managers, those making over $250,000 a year will not continue to get tax cuts.”
4) Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: Obama called for a bi-partisan fiscal committee. He wants a specific set of guidelines by a certain deadline. “I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.” (Applause)
“When the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law. That was a big reason we had record surpluses in the 1990’s. Some will argue that we can’t freeze government spending when so many are hurting. The freeze won’t take effect until next year. If we don’t take meaningful steps to rein in our debt, it will have negative effects.” From some on the right, he said, he expected to hear arguments that our deficits will just go away if we maintain the status quo. “The problem is: that’s what we did for 8 years. That’s what helped lead to these deficits. That’ what led us into this crisis. It’s time to try something new. Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt…
DISTRUST & CYNICISM IN THE LAND
“Let’s try common sense, a novel concept. To do that, we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of values, we face a deficit of trust.” He cited the “deep and growing trust that government works” and asserted that we should do our work openly and end the effects of lobbyists. “That’s what I came to Washington to do,” said Obama. “It’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to corporations to spend without limit in our elections, said Obama (a direct slap at the recent Supreme Court decision overturning these limits). “I don’t think that American elections should be bankrolled by our biggest corporations or, worse, by foreign entities.” (Supreme Court Justices were seen shaking their heads.)
Earmark reforms were then earmarked for criticism. “Democrats and Republicans, restoring the public trust requires more.” He called on Congress to publicize all earmarks on a single website ‘before there’s a vote, so the American people can see how their money is being spent.”
Reform how we work with one another, said Obama. “I never thought that the mere effect of my election would usher in peace and harmony,” said Obama. “On some issues there are simply philosophical differences that will cause us to part ways.” He noted that those disagreements have been taking place for over 200 years. “What frustrates the American people is a Washington, D.C. where every day is Election Day.” A belief that “if you lose, I win” was derided. “Neither party should obstruct every single bill just because they can.” The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage, said the president. “Saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how lame,” is not fair game, said Obama. “So, no, “ said Obama, “I’m trying to change the tone of our politics. After last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. We still have the largest (Democratic) majority in decades, “ he said to the Democrats in the room, “and the American people still expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.”
“If 60 votes in the Senate is required to do anything, that is not good politics. We were sent here to serve our citizens…So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.” Monthly meetings with Democratic and Republican leadership will be begun (“I know you can’t wait,” he said to laughter.)
”Sadly, some of the unity we felt after 9/11 has dissipated…I know that all of us love this country, all of us are committed to its defense. Let’s leave behind the fear and decision and do what it takes to forge a more hopeful future for America and for the world.”
Obama talked about the disruption of plots, about the failed Christmas attack, about prohibiting torture, and about the hundreds of Al Quaeda leaders who have been captured or killed since he took office. He pointed to the elevated troop levels in Afghanistan. He talked about supporting the rights of all Afghans, men and women alike. He talked about a meeting in London to reaffirm the common fight against terrorists and terrorism. “As a candidate, I promised that we will end this war, and we will have all of our combat troops out by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi people…Make no mistake: this war is ending and all of our troops are coming home.” Then, Obama gave a shout-out to all the men and women in uniform around the world, citing the respect and gratitude they are owed and the obligation to support them when they come home. (Shots of the various generals showed Al Franken in the back right of the group.) He mentioned an increase in veteran benefits that took effect last year. Michelle and Joe Biden, he said, are working on support for military families. (Michelle stood up in her deep plum outfit to applaud at that point.)
THREAT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Obama said he would reduce our stockpile and launchers and work with Russia on the farthest-reaching nuclear disarmament agreement in 2 decades, securing all nuclear materials around the world in 2 years “so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.” He cited how these actions have helped “strengthen our hand,” using North Korea and sanctions against it and citing more isolation for Iran. “They, too, shall face growing consequences. That, too, is a promise,” said Obama of Iran’s nuclear policy. “That’s the leadership we are providing.” G20 was mentioned for a lasting global economy. Working with Muslim economies around the world. Fight against climate change: going from a bystander to a leader. Launching a new initiative to respond faster and more effectively to bio-terrorism or infectious diseases. “As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because these actions are linked to those beyond our shores, but we also take this action because it is right.”
At this point, Obama mentioned our efforts to help Haiti recover and rebuild. “That’s why we stand with the woman marching through the streets of Iraq…American must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. Always.”
“We find unity in our incredible diversity. The notion that we are all created equal. If you abide by the law, you should be protected by it. We must continually renew this promise.” The president mentioned his administration’s civil rights division. Hate crimes were specifically mentioned as a target. Finally, he announced that he intended to repeal the law to repeal the right of gay Americans to serve the country they love. (John McCain didn’t like this part of Obama’s speech when interviewed on “Larry King: Live,” either.) “It’s the right thing to do.” We’re going to crack down on violations of equal pay laws. (Women getting paid as much as men for the same day’s work.)
“Now use the drive…Every day, Americans take pride in their labor and are generous in spirit. These aren’t Democratic or Republican values. They’re American values. Unfortunately, too many Americans have lost faith in our biggest institutions…” Obama then went on to say that each of these institutions are full of honorable men, but continued by throwing stones at CEO’s taking huge raises, lobbyists gaming the system, or bankers rewarding themselves, as well as pundits (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind) reducing big issues into sound bites.
“Our citizens turn away.” He then said, “No wonder there’s so much cynicism. No wonder there’s so much disappointment. I campaigned on the promise of change. Right now, I know there are a lot of Americans who wonder if we can change or if I can deliver on that promise. I never promised it would be easy or that I could do it alone…When you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversies. Those of us in public office can respond to it by playing it safe to get through the next election, instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.”
“If people had made that decision 50 or 100 or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans weren’t afraid to do what was necessary, even when it was uncertain, to keep this nation’s dreams alive for their children and their grandchildren…I wake up every day knowing that the problems we face are nothing compared to the set-backs that have faced Americans across the country this year. Despite all these setbacks, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people prevails.”
“None of us are willing to consider even slightly that we might fail… We are strong. We are resilient. We are American.” He personalized the issue of the American spirit by mentioning the 8-year-old boy who sent his allowance in by mail and asked the president to give it to the people of Haiti. “The spirit that has sustained this nation for 2 generations lives on in you. We have finished a difficult year…. We don’t quit. I don’t quit. Let’s seize this moment to carry on and to carry this nation forward.”