State of the Union: Recap and Analysis

He’s Got Jokes

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Who’s got no more campaigns to run? That would be our country’s leader, code-named Renegade, and like his namesake this President went off track briefly from the transcript Tuesday night.

“I have no more campaigns to run. (Republican laughter) I know… because I won both of them”

-President Obama, State of the Union


Sassy world leaders are fun, aren’t they? It wasn’t quite Winston Churchill, but then again, nobody does humor like the Brits. But, a politician who isn’t in perpetual salesman mode is quite a breath of fresh air.

The speech narrated the Obama Presidency in part by using the common rhetorical technique of using an ‘everyday family’ to illustrate the positive and negative aspects of life in Obama’s America. Instead of Joe the Plumber, this time it was Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minnesota. They suffered through the recession, got new jobs and are back on their feet.

Rebekah and Ben’s story reflects the mood of this State of the Union; no doubt more light-hearted than those given in recent years. Rather than spending his speech both stoking and soothing the nation’s fears about terrorist threats, economic stagnation, and civil unrest, President Obama took a victory lap. He proclaimed last year a “breakthrough year” for the economy, citing a 5.6 percent unemployment rate, decreasing energy reliance on the Middle East, rising college graduation rates and much more. In affairs abroad, the speech took a less triumphant tone. He reiterated a call for patience and prudence in regards to international trade, took a shot at Russian foreign policy and the economic consequences the U.S. orchestrated in retaliation, addressed the long overdue economic reconciliation with Cuba and called for Congress to authorize force against ISIS. What was notably absent from the speech was Obamacare. The new issues and solutions seemed to take priority.

Regardless of how you feel about the President and his speech, knowing the accuracy of his claims is just good citizenship. Politifact has a completely fact-checked version of the speech, and Obama did fairly well. I recommend everyone take a look for themselves.

The Last Hurrah?

There are many images of Obama being portrayed, but I’d like to bring the spotlight to just two of them. The first media narrative illustrates Obama as politically crippled, a lame-duck who lost the mid-terms and trapped between a disorganized Democratic party and a hostile Republican congress. The other see the flurry of action in the past three months by the Commander-in-Chief and say, “this guy is getting things done.”

This State of the Union naturally supports the latter of these two, and is perhaps a more accurate picture (although not entirely so). A president’s term doesn’t cease when his party loses a mid-term. In fact, contrary to much of the media hoopla following the election, the mid-terms were not “referendum on the President’s policies,” nor were they the end of that presidency. They were elections of congresspeople (with very low turnout, which would more likely imply a voter apathy/pox on both houses). Obama was intentionally reserved during the election season, by request of some Democratic candidates. Afterwards, he renewed his efforts to enact his agenda, which is what we saw in Tuesday’s speech.

A Not-So-Modest Proposal

Freed from the limits of campaigning, the President is pulling out all the stops. Obama’s domestic agenda for the future is going to push new education policy, like his free community college proposal. This policy, if enacted, would make two-year colleges a part of public education, fully funded for all who can keep a 2.5 GPA (a common-sense idea that Republicans will find difficulty opposing.) He’s also fighting for tax increases on wealthy individuals, new regulation to improve online security, paid sick and maternity leave, and raising the minimum wage.

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Some of these proposals have noteworthy drawbacks, like the minimum wage increase. The Congressional Budget Office suggests this will likely help millions, but could reduce total jobs in the long term. Community college for all would place an estimated $60 billion anchor on the budget. And raising taxes on wealthy individuals draws plenty of ire from powerful people, limiting the President’s ability to get the rest of his agenda passed. Further, while the economy is strong in a number of categories, labor-force participation is declining at a problematic rate.

The above proposals are not just words of the speech, but part of Obama’s actions over the past several months. While it is a pleasure to see Obama moving politically, as Presidents have a duty to do, what took so long? Would it not have been more politically effective to mention the two-year college plan before the mid-terms? These policy proposals sound great, but many of them are entirely limited by what this now-Republican Congress wants to pass. And with the threat of a Keystone veto looming over them and the never-ending media drumroll for the coming 2016, many of these ideas, particularly the tax raises, will never get a chance.

Obama finished his speech with a lengthy rebuttal of cynicism, calling for unity, the positive nature of diversity, and a vision of an America that gets along better than we do now.

I hold onto hope that the rosy image of compromise and optimism the State of the Union ended with is attainable. We may yet see politicians in Washington raise their level of accomplishment, get more legislation passed, and improve our world, even if most of the presentations of one another remains conflicting and divisive.

Collegian Opinion Editor Zack Burley is just another media hack, don’t listen to a word he says and send him angry messages at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @zackburley.