The 2013 State of the Union address was clearly focused on jobs and the economy. The president mentioned jobs 31 times, focused on investments in infrastructure and education, and surprised everyone with a call for an increase in the minimum wage to $9.00/hour. But the 2013, State of the Union address will likely be remembered for the impassioned call in the speech’s finale for action from Congress on gun violence prevention with Hadiya Pendleton’s parents in attendance.
On the jobs front, the president laid out three important goals: “How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
The president then reminded us that he has a plan for jobs—a plan that he proposed over a year ago to great Republicans opposition. “A year and a half ago, I put forward an American Jobs Act that independent economists said would create more than one million new jobs. I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda, and I urge this Congress to pass the rest. Tonight, I’ll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago.”
President Obama’s American Jobs Act is a distant memory for most Americans. It’s likely sitting in a desk drawer in Washington accumulating dust, while beltway types focus on the deficit as we lurch from one “cliff” to another.
While the president is also focused on the deficit in the long term, he emphasized that in the short term we need to spend money on programs that produce results for the poor and working class: “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” The key: government spending can be a smart investment in the American people, despite the Republican sentiment that all government is bad.
Smart investments in the American people begin at a very early age. “Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
This is where the president made a persuasive and direct connection between investing in American’s children in order to save money down the road. The president is banking on the huge return on investment that spending on early childhood education provides. A quality universal pre-school education for every child is the biggest bang for your buck.
And no investment in our young children is going to matter unless they have a healthy and safe planet to call home. Climate change is one issue which has gone backwards in terms of bipartisan support over the past four years and President Obama emphasized this issue as a top agenda item for his second term. “But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense…[we must] act before it’s too late.”
The State of the Union’s shift in rhetoric to focus on a progressive agenda in a second term is the perfect compliment to President Obama’s second inaugural address which touched on unifying themes of equality for all people. The president again called for equality for everyone—gay, straight, immigrant— and also made another appeal to Congress to legislate equal pay for women.
The emotional finale of the speech touched on voting rights and included a vivid anecdote of a 102 year old woman from North Miami, Desiline Victor, who had to wait on line for 6 hours to vote last November. The hour long speech concluded with an emotional plea to Congress to have the courage to vote on gun violence prevention proposals.
If anything is accomplished in the area of gun violence prevention, this speech will be credited for making the headlines about shootings from Newtown to Chicago even more real to many Americans. By placing Hadiya Pendleton’s parents in the box with the First Lady as well as those impacted by the shootings in Newtown, Oak Creek, and Tuscon spread throughout the chamber, gun violence once again became human, and stopped being about partisan talking points and the NRA.
“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
There was a strong and ambitious progressive agenda laid out by the president last night that will require his supporters to flex their collective muscles to put pressure on their members of Congress for the next four years. Otherwise, don't expect the needle to shift much at all.