For a little more than an hour Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama delivered a State of the Union speech that began and ended with military metaphors. Between referencing the end of the war in Iraq and the elimination of Osama bin Laden on the one hand and the camaraderie of the Navy SEALS on the other, he touched on all the critical issues while aggressively launching his re-election campaign.
After noting that the “state of our union is getting stronger,” Obama went directly to one of the reasons there is some sign of economic recovery. “Today,” he said, “General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.”
This would have been a perfect opportunity for the camera to focus on Alicia Boler-Davis, a manager at a General Motors assembly plant in Detroit and the only African-American sitting with the first lady.
Obama stressed that what’s happening in Detroit “can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh.” Citing these cities was not a random selection-they are located in battleground states critical to his winning the election.
Inextricably connected to manufacturing is a tax code that favors companies that outsource jobs. Obama promised to change this. “First, if you’re a business that wants to outsource jobs, you shouldn’t get a tax deduction for doing it. That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home,” he explained. “Second, no American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas. From now on, every multinational company should have to pay a basic minimum tax, and every penny should go toward lowering taxes for companies that choose to stay here and hire here.”
Also seated near the first lady was Debbie Bosanek, Warren Buffett’s secretary, and when the president mentioned the billionaire, the camera captured her smiling in reaction. “Right now,” he said, “Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?”
These comments could have been aimed at Mitt Romney, his presumed opponent in November who recently revealed that he paid about 14 percent in tax on the more than $20 million he earned last year.
And perhaps there was a nod to Newt Gingrich as well when Obama proposed new regulations to curb the influence of lobbyists. Last week, Gingrich admitted he had been paid $1.6 million for advice he gave to Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant.
Among the several proposals planned to enact was the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit charged with the task of investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China. “There will be more inspections to prevent counterfeit or unsafe goods from crossing our borders,” he promised. “And this Congress should make sure that no foreign company has an advantage over American manufacturing when it comes to accessing finance or new markets like Russia. Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you, America will always win.”
This was just one indication of the patriotic zeal that saturated his narrative. When he discussed the energy problem and natural gas, he said, “America will develop this resource [and clean energy] without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk. The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”
But no mention of the economy means anything to the vast number of unemployed Americas unless there’s a plan to create jobs. After citing a woman entrepreneur seated right next to the first lady, Obama said, “Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help.”
Of course, linked to jobs is education, and the president seemed cognizant of that. “Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers-places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.”
Rep. Charles Rangel commended the president’s speech, observing that it “comes at a pivotal time for the American middle class. His call for tax reform, in which everyone pays their fair share, must be answered. We cannot build a solid economy unless the responsibility is shared by everyone. Giving tax incentives to small businesses and manufacturor that keep jobs in America and hire American workers rather than a handful of corporations and billionaires will pump life back into our hard-working middle class, which is the backbone of our nation.”
Thousands of teachers in the country must have been pleased to hear Obama state, “Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” Obviously, the camera panned the room and settled on Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.
Curiously, Obama used the educational theme to raise the issue of immigration and deportation, noting that many of these immigrants “live every day with the threat of deportation,” he lamented. On this issue, his critics charge that he has in fact deported more illegal immigrants than President George W. Bush.
Even so, he said, “We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keep Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.”
“So much of America needs to be rebuilt,” Obama asserted-a topic that all of the elected officials agreed on-and it was time to mention yet another act he was preparing to sign. “In the next few weeks, I will sign an executive order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects-but you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.” Again the Congress rose as one in applause.
Homeowners, so many of them victimized by foreclosures, can take heart knowing that the president is sending to Congress a plan “that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage by refinancing at historically low interest rates,” he said. “No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks. A small fee on the largest financial institutions will ensure that it won’t add to the deficit and will give banks that were rescued by taxpayers a chance to repay a deficit of trust.”
There was only one truly lighthearted moment in this very serious speech. And it came during his discussion of the need to have smart regulations to prevent irresponsible behavior. He added that too many of the current regulations are outdated, unnecessary or too expensive. “In fact, I’ve approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his,” he said. “I’ve ordered every federal agency to eliminate rules that don’t make sense. We’ve already announced over 500 reforms, and just a fraction of them will save business and citizens more than $10 billion over the next five years.
“We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill, because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” There were a few “ahs” as he waited for his quip to run its course before adding, “I’m confident a farmer can contain a milk spill without a federal agency looking over his shoulder.”
Attorney General Eric Holder was given some attention when the president said that he had asked Holder to create a special unit of investigators to guard against predatory lenders, who led to the housing crisis.
Richard Cordray, newly appointed to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was also included in the shout-outs. According to the president, Cordray will be overseeing a Financial Crimes Unit on large-scale fraud and other wrongdoing that impacts consumers.
As he moved toward the closing of his speech, Obama returned to his opening remarks, invoking again aspects of foreign policy and the steadfast unity and the completion of missions by the military, particularly the Navy SEALS.
It was teamwork and the notion that they were watching each other’s back, he emphasized. “So it is with America,” he said. “Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great, no mission too hard.
“As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our union will always be strong.”