State of the Union Recap

Photo Credit: AP

Photo Credit: AP

BY CHUCKS ENEIP

Last night Poor Scholars decided to throw Chucks into the fire and have him cover the State of the Union for his Poor Scholars debut. Any time we can prove our merit as scholars we will and along with being a doctoral student, Chucks is big into politics (it should be noted Chucks worked on President Obama’s campaign during the most recent election). The following is an overview of the night and his reaction to the President’s remarks and the response made by the GOP. This piece is the opinion of Chucks.

State of the Union Highlights

Article II section III of the United State Constitution states “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The State of the Union (sotu) is a chance for presidents to lay out strengths and weaknesses of the nation as well as their policy platforms to Congress and the people. The anticipation leading up to tonight’s address, President Obama’s fifth and first since his re-election, focused on to what extent the speech’s content would focus on gun control, the economy, immigration reform, education, and budget cuts. It was safe to say all of these topics would be covered, so I found the initial coverage Melissa Harris-Perry gave on her Saturday morning news show on MSNBC quite refreshing. She briefly outlined the sotu’s history in a few brief interesting facts to put the current traditions of the address into some perspective, as I will try to do here.

The practice of the State of the Union address was started in 1790 by our very first president, George Washington. Throughout the almost three decades of our country’s existence it has become an annual tradition and one that is ever evolving. Tonight’s sotu was 6,600 words, a stark difference from the 1089 words that comprised the inaugural address, delivered by George Washington. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson ended the practice of giving an oral sotu and it continued in written format until Woodrow Wilson’s oral address in 1913. The tradition of an oral address has continued since then with only a few exceptions. Along the years, the tradition has evolved with technology as well. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge’s address was the first to be broadcast on radio. While the 1947 sotu given by Harry S. Truman was the first to be televised. With these advancements, the general public is now able to take the pulse of congress by the measured reactions from each party towards the President’s talking points. Part of the reason the modern era sotu addresses’ delivery time is so lengthy is due in part to the aforementioned reactions and frequently complained about applause breaks. With the recent end to the 112th Congress, the most useless in the history of our country, the reactionary breaks will give the nation a first glimpse as to the mood each party will have toward the President’s platform.

Now a common practice, guests are invited to the sotu by the first lady and are generally incorporated into the speech in order to provide some real-life reasons behind the need for certain policy reforms. Tonight’s guest list featured individuals highlighting platforms such as alternative energy, gun violence, immigration, government revenue, domestic production, and the economy. Other guests not invited by The First Family were also in attendance, likely to counter ideas President Obama put forward. One such guest, who was invited by Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), was none other than front-runner for Jackass of The Year and the recipient of the sotu superlative “most likely to commit treason, Ted Nugent. I am sure his sound bites throughout the week will be quite interesting since, in response to his inability to carry a weapon on The Hill, Nugent said, “I’m butt-naked. I’ve never been so naked before in all my life.”

Another tradition started in 1966 is the sotu response. The opposition party began filming their own rebuttal to the sotu address highlighting their platforms and where they think the United States stands. This year, the Republican Party’s official rebuttal was performed by likely presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). The Tea Party decided to portray a fractured image of the GOP by also sending out Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to give his own rebuttal. For those of you hoping to read about Sen. Paul’s Tea Party response here, I am going to have to stop and break your Palin-loving hearts right. The GOP by any means did not wish for a second rebuttal, which is only evident in the fact the speech was only made available via the Koch brothers’, I mean Tea Party’s website. We will not dignify this response either with any sort of analysis. One final note about the rebuttal, for the first time in history, the sanctioned Republican response will be broadcasted in Spanish and in English, likely to try to bring in Latino voters which the GOP lacked in the prior presidential election. This is a pretty significant step for the GOP and probably one they wished they had made earlier.

As is customary with all sotu addresses, one member of the cabinet must remain in the oval office so that all members in the line of succession are not grouped in the same building. The idea here is that if a terror event were to occur, someone would be standing with the knowledge and power to keep the country going. This year’s lucky prize winner was outgoing Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. We at Poor Scholars have picked up a rumor that the intended cabinet secretary for this spot was the new Secretary of State John Kerry, which is fitting since it would be as close as he would ever get to running our country. Unfortunately Secretary Chu, a noted and intimate lover of all things alternative energy, had car trouble with his solar-powered vehicle and could not make it all the way to The Hill. At last, the night had to go on without him.

In recent sotus, issues such as military strength and making education more affordable have received overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle, as it should. Tonight there was also an air of bipartisan support for the issue of immigration reform. In a symbolic gesture, many members of congress from both sides of the aisle continued the recent tradition of sitting next to members of the opposite party. In addition to sporting pins for a new “Fix Not Fight” campaign, a welcomed gesture by many Americans. This group will hold monthly meeting to focus on passing certain bipartisan bills, which is something this country greatly needs.

President Obama covered many topics in this year’s address, and some of them were quite surprising. Below are some key highlights.

The Sequester and Budget

Beginning in March, across the board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion dollars will begin to take effect due to the inaction of Congress to make their own spending adjustments. Economists of all walks have agreed, along with both parties, that this could damage our economy greatly. The President outlined that we are more than halfway to our goal of $4 trillion in cuts however, sweeping cuts that impact research, education, job training, defense, and programs to help the poor and elderly are not the answer. Approximately ¾ in attendance applauded the fact that allowing the sequester to occur except in cases of funding national security was not the answer. The president emphasized one of our main problems with costs are with healthcare and he plans to “We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors” and “medical bills shouldn’t be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital.” He requested a broad-based approach saying :we don’t need a big government, we need a smarter government,” which seemed to take Speaker John Bohner (R-OH), whose bronzer tone looked as though he just rolled out of the filming of Jersey Shore: The Movie, by surprise. He outlined the importance of Congress in acting on these issues and moved onto job creation with “The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”

Job Creation

Keeping with his philosophy since running for his first term, the president focused greatly on creating new high-tech jobs and preparing the upcoming workforce for these careers. He touted a “tech-hub” created in the dilapidated town of Youngstown, Ohio that focused on technological, business and university collaborations to begin manufacturing with 3-D printing. He asked Congress to support him by opening up to 15 more of these hubs around the country. Furthermore, he stated “Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race. We need to make those investments.” Being in the science and medicine field myself, I see every single day how investment in new technologies have brought broad economic growth to communities. In my opinion, bringing down the cost of healthcare through preventative measures and stream-lining technological innovation from concept to manufacturer is one of the most important things our country can do to stay competitive in an ever-expanding global marketplace. Many of his economic positions, as expected, were met with great applause and across-the –isle support, however the next section of the speech was actually quite shocking.

Global Warming

Previous sotu addresses by President Obama have been met with great rejoice by the environmental lobbying groups, however this year’s statements were more aggressive than many of them could have likely hoped for. He recited statistics about the increases in temperature, droughts, floods and wild fires and directly implied that they were scientifically linked to global warming. He said “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.” He urged congress to act on this vital issue and followed with a demand, that I personally never saw coming saying “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” This statement is so bold and a major win for the climate-change community. The threat of an executive order if Congress does not act will surely be met with hostile resistance from those who see climate change as a scientifically fabricated hoax.

Infrastructure/Education

The president laid out his new “Fix It First” initiative (release 2/13/2013) to re-build ports, roads, bridges, and schools while asking collaboration from private companies who rely on these sources to keep their businesses growing (or maybe not because, after all, they did build it). In addition, the president spoke of the necessity of the future employees of these companies to be provided better educational opportunities. Citing research showing increased productivity from people beginning their education with preschool, he said” So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” He furthered this sentiment by encouraging high schools to collaborate more with industry and colleges and to ensure high school diplomas are representative of an education worthy of jobs in science and technology industries. This point is exactly what I hoped to hear in this section. So many graduates from high school who choose not to attend college or do not have the means to are finding it harder to find jobs due to a lack of qualification. Our economy will only grow stronger if these individuals have an educational background worthy of the 21st century. For those choosing or able to attend college, President Obama’s administration will be releasing a “College Scorecard” outlining those institutions with the most “Bang for the buck” and asked Congress to give federal support priority to those institutions who keep costs down and quality of education up.

Immigration Reform

An issue with bipartisan support, at least in idea, is the need for a more efficient and controlled immigration policy. One that President Obama believes can be accomplished by “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” He also urged reform so that highly trained individuals that will benefit our economy by creating jobs have incentive for starting companies in this country. He was not as aggressive in this issue as I originally had thought he may be, but with a long floor fight ahead on this issue, it is likely he did not wish to kill any sort of deal being drawn up in the Senate before it can get to the floor for a vote. The tone of the statement seemed to meet the approval of both parties as this was one of the few times Speaker Boehner rose in applause. Let us hope this is a good sign for things to come.

Workplace Reform

The president called for Congress to finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act ensuring women are paid equally to their male counterparts, as well as a not so well received for a minimum wage hike to $9.00/hr accompanied by increases based on cost of living adjustments, stating that “working full-time shouldn’t place you in poverty.”

National Security

This section was exactly as most would expect it, placing emphasis on cyber security, defeating Al-Qaida and supporting those in the Middle East who wish for democracy. He supported Israel’s defense and hope for a lasting peace in the region and condemned the continual testing of nuclear weapons by North Korea as well as stating his aggression towards the development of a bomb by Iran. In a promising section he reported the men and women of our armed forces in Afghanistan will be moving to a supporting roll, along with troop reduction of 34,000 by the end of the year and a cessation of the war by next year…I think we can all look forward to welcoming these men and women back home, hopefully in a fashion that honors their service through support and employment. President Obama displayed continued support to military members, both gay and straight, insisting that we take care of them and their families. As troop depletion continues, he expressed hope we could shift those monetary resources to strengthening our economy.

Voting Reform

In a section of the speech that seemed almost aimed at the Justices of the Supreme Court in the front row, who will soon be voting on a voter protection case, he called for increased rights for all Americans.

Gun Control

In what was one of the most emotional moments of the evening, the president called for a simple vote on gun control legislation. Growing up in a small community who witnessed unthinkable gun violence this year and having received my college education in a city that at times can seem like a war zone, I hoped President Obama would call for a long hard look into this debate. At times, his previous sotu addresses have seemed flat in comparison to the well-crafted speeches he gives after these national tragedies. However he delivered one of the most powerful sections of a speech I have ever witnessed him perform. Outlining background checks, gun trafficking and magazine size, he simply asked congress to vote. He said “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. More than a thousand. One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house. 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.”

Whether or not these issues put forward by the president will be taken seriously be members of Congress is yet to be seen, however as stated before, the Republican rebuttal may provide some insight into this.

Response

Sen. Rubio’s response took on a form that I had not expected. One of the most surprising details was an opening line including the party believing “every life at every stage is precious.” In what will be seen as a triumph for many in the Republican base, the pro-life tone to the statement showed everyone that the battles seen on this issue in the past years are not over. The opportunity to give this speech is a great springboard towards his potential run for president in 2016; a prospect that seemed to un-nerve the freshman Senator. Many times throughout the response he stumbled over words and nervously fidgeted, even pausing to reach down to a knee-high level for a bottle of water, which he awkwardly sipped. Sen. Rubio’s response adopted a hostile tone early on and centered around economic issues and making a case for lower government oversight and decreased revenue. While Rubio said “I pray we can come together and solve our problems” he still used his prepared remarks to hit President Obama’s economic history saying, “Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.” He blamed the housing market caused by too many bad government policies for the housing collapse and stated higher taxes and more government oversight will only hinder growth, prosperity and development. He went as far as to say ‘he (the president) should abandon his obsession to raise taxes.”

Sen. Rubio agreed that we should open up to the prospects of alternative energies, and we should continue our development of coal and gas. Coupled with these enterprises, he also asked for decreased regulation. Not surprisingly, he disagreed with the president’s position on climate change saying “our government can’t control the weather” and when Republicans oppose him “he says we want dirty water and air.”

Rubio also indicated a need for increased educational opportunities, citing his recent success in paying off massive student debt and the need for government in a supportive roll throughout a child’s educational life. Rubio hopes “[parents have] the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.” To me, this sounds a lot like a re-roll out of the long-held Republican idea of school vouchers, which have been shown to fail miserably, instead of a novel and viable option for furthering education in our country.

Much of the speech blamed President Obama’s policies for the failed progress in recent years, however I had hoped the speech would take on a less defensive tone. There were very few policy introductions aside from the same Medicare, taxation and small business policies we have all heard in previous years. Going into the response I had hoped very much for the introduction of viable dissenting opinions on how to approach the problems we face in this country. I hoped for a response speech that would begin to shape the debate and send us into a new year with hope for arguments and leadership that actually governed. It is now my hope that this was not indicative of the dialog happening behind the scenes, for I fear if it is we may see another feeble and ineffective Congress for the months to come.

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