State of the Union reflections

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Read President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address here.

“Last night’s speech was President Obama at his oratorical best. Powerful opening—great walk through the struggles of our nation’s history. He was Presidential and confident. He was humble, yet scolding of the politicians that filled the chamber. The best line of the night came from a letter written by a woman, “We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.”
The President said, “The American people deserve a Government that matches their decency.” I agree Mr. President. As I listened to the President outline his 2010 agenda “jobs” rightfully topped the list, however, I could not help but wonder what happened to healthcare? Overall, it was a good speech focused on the very issues the President should have tackled from day #1—JOBS, the ECONOMY, and International TRADE.
In the final analysis, it looks like the Massachusetts Senate upset gave the President a wakeup call. I hope so, because if he returns to us as the man who won the White House in 2008 on a mantra of “change we can believe in” then the nation will certainly be better off with a renewed and focused President fighting for us all.”

Sophia A. Nelson, Political Strategist
Washington D.C

With much anticipation, President Barack Obama delivered his first State of the Union address. Our President encouraged us not to quit, to seize the moment and to start anew. Let’s remember that this was his “first” State of the Union address, not his last.
What is most important is how the President will execute policy in the days, weeks, and months to come. How will he and his administration deliver tangible results to the refocus on the economy, tax reductions, health care reform, reduced spending and other critical issues? What will be accomplished, and working effectively by the second State of the Union address?

S.D. Adkins, Managed Care Administrator
Columbus, OH

“It was no accident that President Obama talked mostly about jobs Wednesday night in his first State of the Union speech.
No doubt, his team inside the White House has poll-tested themes and settled on the economy as the place for Obama to draw a line in the sand. All Americans are worried about the prolonged high unemployment and the impact it’s having on their household budgets.
That’s why the president took credit for 200,000 workers having jobs who might otherwise be unemployed, if not for his administration’s policies. Then he declared his administration must do more.
“This is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010,” Obama declared, “and that is why I’m calling for a new jobs bill tonight.”
For most of his hour-plus speech, Obama talked in details about the economy. But as for other domestic issues, he spoke in broad or glancing generalities on such topics as immigration, foreign policy and energy.
And he avoided talking about race altogether.
To understand, if not totally appreciate, the relative absence of any race-specific talk in the president speech, a historical fact must be clearly acknowledged. Never in the nation’s history has any progress been made on race in a sour economy.
In fact, all epochs of racial advance have coincided with American prosperity. The clearest example of this was the post-World War II period when American was flush from war-created wealth. Returning soldiers who helped defeat Hitler and the Nazis fueled a booming economy that paved the route for a nascent civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Racial progress continued, albeit in fits and starts, until the oil crisis of the 1970s brought an end to affirmative action, the prominence of Ronald Reagan and a backlash against black progress.
The boom times of the 1990s and Bill Clinton’s pay-as-you go policies allowed for another period of (brief) black political and social advances.
And when George W. Bush took over, the activist government approach ended as federal money went to wealthy corporations, not the poor in black and other communities. Of course, black unemployment swelled.
It appears clear that Obama, at heart, a scholar and not a politician, understands the historic link. It takes a strong economy to grant the political will for federal spending on domestic policies that aid black Americans.
Trying to spend money like that in a down economy is political suicide. It would stoke broad, populist resentment among white and independent voters that would destroy his administration. (If you need more convincing, Google “tea party movement.”)
So Obama avoided direct racial talk in his State of the Union speech. He made fleeting comments about the civil rights enforcement efforts of his Justice Department and called on Congress to enact immigration reform. But that’s about as close as he dared tread on race-specific policies or appeals. They just won’t sell with the big swinging block of political supporters.
Obama is trying to pull off a tricky maneuver. Talking race from the White House is a balancing act that no white president before him has been able to pull off successfully. Lyndon Johnson lost his second term by doing more than talk.
Jimmy Carter fumbled miserably as he lost even the Democrats in Congress. And Bill Clinton, well, his heart wasn’t ever in it except to save his own scandal-ridden reputation.
Black Americans want to hear their president talk directly to them like the preacher does on Sunday mornings. They want emotional connection and condemnation of shared enemies. They want to hear Obama decry the ridiculously higher unemployment in black communities compared to the nation in general. They want to know that he’s calling out Republicans who stymie progress and kicking the ass of those who sell wolf tickets.
In short, they want to hear President Obama go black on national television.
Of course, this wasn’t likely to happen during his first State of the Union speech, if ever. It’s not Obama’s style. What’s more, his team of advisors aren’t about to risk it having him scare the bejeezus out white voters who are waiting for an excuse to brand him as nothing more than the black people’s president.
So far, black voters are sticking with Obama, as he works to revive the economy and keep his mojo with independent voters. But unless Obama finds a dog-whistle voice, one that speaks directly to the black people’s concerns but is inoffensive to white ears, the nation’s first black president could discover that even his most loyal supporters aren’t listening to him any longer.”

Sam Fulwood III, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Washington D.C.

“Let’s be honest. The State of the Union address is an important yearly political exercise with very few long-term consequences. The short attention span and even shorter memory of the American public places our President in the unenviable position of having to motivate the entire country towards a goal, only to have them retreat when change is not immediately forthcoming. The State of the Union is, then, in many ways, simply the half-time motivational speech that convinces us to play another quarter.
This year, the President had to convince us to stay the course, not just with the economy, or with the government, but with him. And this of course is the problem with our sycophantic tendencies to look for a political savior. In my estimation, the President did a few things well. He called for accountability and transparency—in earmarked spending, in the practices of lobbyists, and in the spurious, politically motivated decision-making of the Supreme Court– and he reminded us of the need for changes in health care, in education, and in civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans.
He made his case rationally and logically for taking the long view of our currently unfavorable circumstances. His style was unapologetically, if coolly, confrontational. His lack of genuflection and deference has most assuredly drawn the ire of Republican pundits who declare him to be arrogant and condescending. And well-meaning, misguided liberals have read this same leadership posture as “post-racial.” Chris Matthews remarked that he “forgot that [Obama] was Black tonight for an hour.” Governing folks who think like this is surely hard work. To build consensus, to create change, you have to be not only convincing, but more to the point, convinced. So in case you missed it, President Obama wasn’t conceited; just convinced—as any good leader should be.”

Brittney Cooper, Professor, University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

“For the most part, was a pitch-perfect speech, and I agreed with most it’s the substance. Biggest disappointment: saying that off-shore drilling and nuclear power are “clean” solutions to climate change. This is bad news, especially for folks on tribal lands and along the Gulf Coast.”

Judy Hatcher, Executive Director, Environmental Support Center
Washington D.C.

“Thank you Mr. President! It’s been a long time since we heard our leader give straight talk about the state of our precious union, without rhetoric.
Thanks for letting us know you are aware of our fears and problems; the loss of jobs, the wars, our military coming home; our high debt caused by bailing out Wall St., banks and the auto industry to save not only our economy, but average folks jobs and homes; for making new jobs your number one priority; and for trying to get funds for homeowners. Thanks for letting us know we need to get a grip on our expenses.
Thanks for trying to get health care for all; for addressing the need for education and for focusing on the various minorities of our country. Our wounded military, gays, non-whites, children and immigrants, all need someone to speak for them. Thanks for reminding folks that women deserve fair pay for the same job done and letting us know you will try and keep our country safe.
Thanks for reminding folks you were elected by a bipartisan collective and they need to learn to play together, too. I liked when you told the congress, both sides, to straighten up and fly right to get the people’s business done.
Sorry you have to tell folks that you didn’t raise taxes because of the folks spewing lies about all that you do. Sorry you became President of the United States of America during one of the worst economic collapses in history.
Thanks for having the courage of your convictions to do what you think is right, for letting us know what you are doing transparently, and that that is how you will govern.
Mr. President, thanks for being here; you are the best man for the job, and we appreciate you.”

D. Allen, Retail Manager
Spring, TX

“Although brief, President Barack Obama addressed his plans for education reform. His plans include, but are not limited to, revitalizing community colleges, providing tax breaks to families, increasing Pell Grants, and provide loan repayment relief, especially to those who plan to work in public service. He firmly believes that 1) “the best antipoverty program is a world class education” and 2) “no one should go broke because they chose to go to college”. These underlying sentiments behind his K-16 reforms resonate with many who owe much in student loans and who firmly believe that education is a social vehicle to upward mobility in the U.S.
Despite these positive plans, I was hoping to hear more on the DREAM Act (i.e. the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants through college education) and more information on race and need based scholarships. These absences in his speech remind us of the ambiguous nature the education system has in a capitalist society, specifically colleges and universities. We ask ourselves, is education truly an emancipatory institution or simply a socially reproductive tool? Are we ignoring undocumented children who were raised with U.S. ideals of education because they are perceived to not be viable individuals of this country? Why are we overlooking race and need based programs? Our vision for K-16 needs to be solidified and I urge our President to move beyond linking class with education.
A student walked into my office to discuss her loans. She says that she takes out, on average, twenty thousand dollars in loans every year. She says “But isn’t an $80,000 loan for college normal?” I responded, “Just because its normal does not make it right”. We need to encourage our President to help make education right again in many ways and not just for economic reasons.

Blanca E. Vega, Doctoral Student, Columbia University
New York City

“President Obama opens with a history of what this country did on the precipice of change. He says “we.” Not “you.” I find this interesting because the bulk of the people with the power are not “us.” They’re not President Obama. They’re not “we.” And they’re not “me.” I’m pretty sure they aren’t “you.”
I’m not saying that we are only demographic categories. We’re more than that. But we are all situated. I’m saying that because we are situated and because this country has a history of discrimination because of our categories, the “we” that is the power in this country is not the “we” that is us.
In 2050 whites will not be the majority. Men aren’t the majority now. Why is Congress so behind? “We” are supposed to be a democratic republic. “We” aren’t there.
Tellingly, the “we” that is represented isn’t even the “we” that makes up Congress. It’s the corporate “we” that makes up the money. The money that goes to the top 10%. The money that is free, without limits, to electioneer our future, thanks the new Supreme Court. The “we” in Congress is the “we” of lobbyists and corporations that hire them. The same “we” that ruined the economy. The same “we” that usurped the 14th Amendment’s personhood and protection guarantees.
This “we” determines who has jobs, insurance, profits. It is the kingmaker “we.” It’s the “we” that moves union jobs to right to work states. It’s the “we” that destroys urban communities through sprawl. This “we” is the structure in structural racialization. This “we” hurts Us.
When President Obama says “we” he means the real We. The We that rose up and said “yes we can.” The real We again needs to step up. The real We needs to demand an end to the “we” that keeps us where we are. The real We needs to run for office, needs to build communities, needs to educate our kids and needs to effect the change we all believed in 2008. Let’s get together and be that We that we are. As Obama says, “We don’t quit.” We can’t quit.”

Caitlin Watt, Legal Research Associate, Kirwan Institute
Columbus, OH

“If you listened very closely you could hear this President’s mind working, and I’ve never heard a mind that works with such speed, stability and precision. You can also hear that his mental activity is guided by spiritual principles that are about basic righteousness, not about the politics of the left or right. I have never witnesses such holistic decision making on such a high level, on so man important issues. His timing is perfect, and I am not talking about the timing in his speech, but the timing of his speech –each element of it addressing something that needed to be addressed to keep everything balanced.
His ability to put off things that others wanted him to face earlier speaks of his unshakable faith. I had wondered if he had lost some of that faith, with so many people barking at him from both left and right, from white people and non-whites; and when I saw that the faith was still steadfast, I renewed my confidence that he is a special person, chosen by the providential force of the universe (God, if you will) for this time when an old world is dying and a new world (full of so much promise) is being born..
“I did not think that change would be easy,” he said but when he listed the things that he had changed and the things that he proposed even “The Party of No” gradually had to un-balled their fists. Can they keep them un-balled is the question. He called on their humanity, which is the best thing for him to do. I am an optimist. I think some of them will respond. Watch!”

George Davis, author of Until We Got Here
New Jersey


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

2 Responses to State of the Union reflections

  1. At times the President was inspiring, genuine, caring, compassionate, scolding, and taunting. I don’t think I have ever seen a President admit that our country has some room to grow. I am referring to his comment about “not taking second place.” I enjoyed his challenge to democrats and republicans. His willingness to meet monthly with leaders from each party – something I thought was already going on. And his willingness to admit mistakes – communicating enough about the health care bill. The responses (cheers, disapproving sounds, etc.) he gets from his fellow lawmakers reminds me of the British House of Commons. A place where individuals freely speak, comment, and participate. I think he is personalizing the presidency in a way that is unparalleled by any past president in my lifetime.

    J. Agnoli, University Administrator, Columbus, Ohio

    January 28, 2010 at 9:04 am

  2. Comment from our Facebook Fan page:

    I hope that promises for economic assistance to the middle class are kept more faithfully than promises to freeze spending, since the two will be in inevitable conflict. Disappointed by lack of mention of poverty, rights of workers to choose to form unions, or turning away from global militarism. Enjoyed sarcastic jabs at GOP “ideas” and the Supreme Court, but what’s the substantive policy payoff?

    Michan Connor

    Firoze Manji

    Kirwan Institute
    January 28, 2010 at 9:11 am

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