As President Barack Obama neared the end of his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, he cited the bravery and resilience of Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was seriously wounded while serving his 10th deployment in Afghanistan. A massive roadside bomb sent shrapnel into his brain. But Remsburg survived and was among the citizens the president recognized. Remsburg, the president said, “never gives up, and he does not quit.”
Nor does Obama give up or quit despite having the lowest approval rating of any president entering his fifth year in office. Clearly unfazed by the negative polls, Obama was at his oratorical best as he dwelled on health care, minimum wage, equal pay and, of course, Iran.
His remarks on education aroused the entire chamber, as did his comments on terrorism, the military and veterans. He recalled that last year, he pledged to connect 99 percent of “our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years without adding a dime to the deficit.” And it must have pleased both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio when he promised to help states make high quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old.
The president received perhaps his loudest sustained ovation when he touched on the topic of equal pay. “Women make up half of our workforce,” he said. “But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.” The full chamber leaped up and stood applauding for more than a minute.
“She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job,” he added. “A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into a hardship—and you know what, a father does too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” Even Speaker John Boehner had to smile at that reference, momentarily breaking his sourpuss expression.
There are always several plants in the chamber, ordinary Americans invited by the president in order to put a human face on a particular issue, and it is usually represented by a cross section of citizens. Estiven Rodriguez might be considered a twofer, giving the president an opportunity to discuss education and to also allude to immigration. Rodriguez, he explained, moved to New York City when he was 9 and could not speak a word of English. “But last month, thanks to the support of great teachers and an innovative tutoring program, he led a march of his classmates … from their high school to the post office, where they mailed off their college applications. And this son of a factory worker just found out he’s going to college this fall.”
Another heartfelt moment arrived when the president stoked his health care plan by citing the successes experienced by Amanda Shelley, a physician assistant and single mom from Arizona. She couldn’t get health insurance, the president said, “but on Jan. 1, she got covered. On Jan. 3, she felt a sharp pain. On Jan. 6, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy.” He noted further that some 3 million Americans under the age of 26 are now covered by their parents’ insurance plans. More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage, he stated.
Climate change, voter suppression attempts, gun violence, the Middle East and al-Qaeda got their requisite mentions, and the president devoted a good amount of time to Iran, as was expected, stressing the need for diplomacy above all else.
He said it was American diplomacy, “backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. … As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.” Even so, he observed, “We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies,” and obviously Israel is the main ally.
Rep. Charles Rangel praised the president’s speech, noting, “The current recovery process is an opportunity to prepare us as a country for the 21st century global economy,” he said. “President Obama’s proposals tonight, such as raising the federal minimum wage, implementing new retirement savings account, launching manufacturing initiatives, empowering women, making college affordable, not only jump-start the economy in the short term, but also invest in lasting opportunity for all. This means that recovery efforts must do more than simply return us to the conditions that existed at the beginning of this economic crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Republican response to the speech was without any specific plans and was almost as oblivious as the person chosen to deliver it.
Obama reminded the nation, at the close of his address, that America has never come easy. “Our freedom, our democracy has never been easy,” he declared. “Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.”
The stumbling, the mistakes and the frustration, particularly from Republicans, are things Obama knows firsthand, but he also knows something about promoting justice and fairness and putting his shoulder to the wheel of progress and not quitting.