In his State of the Union address, a nearly 7,000 word speech, President Obama mentioned job or jobs in relation to work no fewer than a dozen times. Other than citing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ empty chair, nothing was said about the guns and violence that kill 34 Americans each day.
But, most disconcertingly, no African-American or Hispanic was spotlighted during his acknowledgment of enterprising businessmen and women making their mark in the nation.
Nevertheless, the Commander-in-chief touched on some vital issues, made some firm promises, and generally keyed his remarks to a centrist tendency, with a resumption of the bipartisan mission on which he expended so much political capital during the first two years of his administration.
“Now, by itself,” said Obama of America’s collective spirit, “this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow. I believe we can. I believe we must.”
He was clearly referring to those Democrats and Republicans who chose to sit next to each other rather than taking their customary positions on opposing sides of the aisle.
How long this temporary accord will last was to some extent presaged by Obama, who said, “We will argue about everything.” Certainly health care, which the House, given its new majority of Republicans, voted to repeal, will be contested territory. How to close the deficit and the nation’s accelerating debt, education and financial reform are also contentious items on a long agenda.
The nation and the media had been alerted that jobs and competitiveness would be at the center of his speech, and while he touched on both topics, the millions of unemployed probably craved a few more details about the process of finding a decent job.
“Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown,” he reflected. “You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck, good benefits, and the occasional promotion. Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed.”
It has mainly changed because of outsourcing and automation, which has robbed America of its manufacturing base, and all the new and green technology may not be enough to stabilize our workforce since other nations such as China and India are leagues ahead, something Obama cited in passing.
SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry was pleased by his comments on work and issued the following statement. “Let’s be clear, there is no greater investment in this country than getting Americans back to work. With nearly 30 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, we don’t just have a jobs crisis, we have a jobs emergency. Tonight, President Obama issued a clear call to action to solve our jobs emergency. We need all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, to work together to pave the road that working people, and our country, must walk to a stronger, more promising future.”
Moreover, she added, “It’s alarming to hear some Republicans counter the president’s bold vision with devastating cuts that would destroy jobs and plunge our nation back into recession. These Republicans are quick to dismiss job-creating investments in education and infrastructure as unnecessary spending while pushing for budget-busting tax breaks for millionaires. And it’s no longer acceptable for corporations and Wall Street banks to earn a record $1.6 trillion in profits while refusing to put America back to work.”
After several minutes on the plight of America’s trailing other nations in technology and technology, Obama drew an example from the past.
“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
“If this is indeed our Sputnik moment,” said Henry, “we can no longer allow politics to divide us. Our children are counting on all of us to come together to create a brighter future and meet the great challenge of our generation. We can and must do big things.”
Doing “big things” was not relegated solely to jobs and competition; Obama placed the same emphasis on the realm of education and its vital link to the world of work.
“Over the next 10 years,” the president stated, “nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us–as citizens, and as parents–are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
“That responsibility,” he continued, “begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”
These pronouncements had a special resonance for Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We agree with the president’s call for long-term investments in our children and schools,” she began. “These investments are essential to strengthen our nation, maintain a healthy democracy and help future generations succeed. The goal is to make sure every student has an opportunity to achieve great things, just like the terrific West Philadelphia students who sat with the first lady during the State of the Union address.
“While making these critical investments in our future,” Weingarten added, “we also have to protect those who are less fortunate and support those who are struggling mightily to lead a middle-class life, stay healthy, send their children to college and retire with dignity. As a nation, we do better when we put aside our differences and find common ground, and it doesn’t cost a nickel to work together. We applaud the president’s call for more civility and collaboration, which we believe is the best hope for achieving better lives for students and all Americans.”
Immigration, government reform, and the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan were among other issues Obama surveyed, if not in any great depth. When he talked about the recent repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” he got a standing ovation from all, as he did with any mention of the dedication of our men and women in the armed services.
“Our troops come from every corner of this country,” Obama said. “They are Black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay.”
Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, cheered the comment and offered this statement: “The Center for American Progress applauds President Obama’s announcement during the State of the Union address that gay men and women will be able to serve openly in the United States military this year. In a strong bipartisan vote, Congress voted to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in December of last year, and the Pentagon is now developing regulatory and other changes that need to be in place before open service is implemented. The president’s announcement tonight sends a strong signal that open service is a priority for the Pentagon, and that, very soon, gay men and women will be able to serve our country with full honesty and integrity. We are grateful for the president’s leadership on this issue.”
Obama steered clear of citing too many figures, but when he did the consternation from some members of congress was apparent. “So tonight, I am proposing that, starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” he declared.
“This freeze will require painful cuts,” he said. “Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.”
Innovation, education, technology and infrastructure were the basic themes of his text, which he delivered with his usual precision and explicitness. There were a couple of moments of levity, most notably his remark about “smoked salmon,” and the excess of various governmental agencies.
At the close he came back to “We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong.”
Not so strong were responses from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, representing the Tea Party.