In his sixth State of the Union address on Wednesday night, President Barack Obama delivered a glowing review of the nation’s economy, saying that after years of war, financial crises, and high rates of joblessness, it’s finally time to “turn the page.”
Citing steady job growth and an unemployment rate that’s lower than it was before the economic downturn, the President declared: “The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”
And so, in a departure from years past, the President focused his address not on fixing the broken economy that marked his first six years in office, but on pushing his agenda for the future, including an audacious—if perhaps unachievable—to-do list for both Congress and the country’s business leaders.
Some items on that list were familiar ones. President Obama, for instance, urged Congress to pass a law that would eradicate the gender wage gap, by ensuring that women are paid the same as men for doing the same work. “Really,” the President emphasized. “It’s 2015. It’s time.”
He also vowed to help states adopt paid sick leave and maternity leave laws, noting that 43 million American workers have no paid sick leave. “That forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home,” he said.
Paid Internships, Please
The President went on to applaud some of the United States’ oldest industries, saying that the manufacturing sector has added 800,000 new jobs and that the automotive industry is back on its feet. And yet, a significant portion of the address was devoted to preparing members of the middle class for jobs of the future.
He proposed bringing the cost of community college down to zero, and encouraged businesses to “follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS” by offering more paid internships and apprenticeships to people who don’t have a higher education.
On Net Neutrality
Though he didn’t dwell on it, the President did vow to defend net neutrality. Considering that millions of Americans now work at companies like Google, eBay, and Tesla that didn’t even exist 20 years ago, he admitted that it’s tough to predict who will become the biggest job creators of the future.
That’s why, he said, it’s important to ensure the United States is a friendly place for new tech innovations, which includes protecting “a free and open internet.”
It also includes protecting individuals and businesses from cyber threats, the President said. He encouraged Congress to pass legislation that would “better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information.”
The Precision Medicine Initiative
President Obama also announced a new biotech endeavor called the Precision Medicine Initiative, aimed at creating new methods of drug delivery that would be tailored to an individual’s unique genetic makeup.
The question, of course, as it always is, is whether President Obama can turn these proposals into action with just two years left in his presidency and in the face of so much opposition from a Republican-led Congress. The answer, of course, as it always is, is probably not.
Despite the President’s appeals to members of Congress to put aside their cynicism and ill will and work together, it’s unlikely this stubborn partisanship will dissipate any time soon—if ever—which will severely limit President Obama’s ability to accomplish many of these goals before his tenure is over.
‘Bigger Than 2016′
But after six years in the White House, the Obama administration is already all too aware of that fact. As one senior official told Talking Points Memo, the goal of Wednesday’s address was largely to establish President Obama’s legacy as the Ronald Reagan of the left.
“This is about something bigger than 2016,” the official said. “It’s like — can we change the frame of the debate, where, like Reagan was able to basically constrain the political debate around no-new-taxes and small government, we can do the same thing around an economic philosophy that invests in the middle class of the country and asks the wealthy to pay a little more. And to beat back the politics of austerity. So that’s the long-term thinking.”
So it seems that the purpose of this year’s State of the Union address was not so much setting the agenda for President Obama’s final years in office, but establishing evidence of the effectiveness of his policies in order to set the stage for the future.
“Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America,” he said in conclusion, referencing his first inaugural address from 2009. “We’ve laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter — together — and let’s start the work right now.”