Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Breaking Down the 2013 State of the Union

So it's been over a month since the State of the Union Address; I know I'm a little tardy to the party on this one but I worked hard on it and with all the other things I've got going on, it tends to take quite a bit of time to do an analysis this extensive of an hour-long speech.  It was Obama's first State of the Union (SotU) since winning re-election, which is a huge moment for any president.  You no longer have to worry about being re-elected and you have four years ahead of you to do all the difficult things you really came here to do.  That being said, it comes as no surprise that if I could choose only one word to describe the 2013 State of the Union, it would be "ambitious."  There was a lot of stuff we had all heard many times before--stuff that was straight out of campaign speeches such as the themes of growing the middle class and income inequality.  But there was also a lot of stuff we hadn't heard before, at least not from Obama.  Let's break it down section by section...






Introduction (~5 minutes)

This is basically where he laid the groundwork and set the tone for the whole speech.  He brought up income inequality, mentioning the fact that corporate profits have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated.  He also set the tone for the middle class theme as well as a theme of bipartisan compromise. Nothing much to talk about here, mostly well-executed rhetoric.  A good introduction overall.

Budget section (~8:30 minutes)

This was mostly the stuff we had heard before and/or knew we were going to hear in the SotU.  He talked about the sequester and how it was a "really bad idea" to let that happen (direct quote).  (It's important to note that that was the idea behind the sequester; it was supposed to be so undesirable as to force Congress to take action. So...that worked out well...)  He also brought up the fact that some in Congress think that we should allow these automatic cuts for everything except defense spending, which he characterized as an "even worse" idea.  (Personally, I wouldn't mind doing the opposite--letting ONLY the defense cuts go through--but what do I know?)

Obama talked about "entitlement reform" (a lovely little euphemism for entitlement cuts) and advocated a proposal that would result in Medicare "savings" (cuts) equal to those in the Simpson/Bowles plan.  But there was also no shortage of the "balanced approach" rhetoric we heard all throughout the campaign.  "We can't cut our way to prosperity" he said, echoing many a campaign speech, as he called for "bipartisan comprehensive tax reform" that would include closing loopholes and deductions for the wealthiest Americans and corporations.  He also didn't hesitate to call out Congress for its politicization of the debt ceiling, saying that the U.S. "can't go from one manufactured crisis to the next."

Barely anyone seems to know the difference between "debt" and "deficits"--now you do...

Overall, this was probably the weakest, least interesting part of the speech but a necessary one.  We all knew he would talk about the budget and it's not surprising that he spent more time talking about it than anything else save for foreign policy (by a pretty wide margin).  Not only that but we pretty much knew exactly what he was going to say about the budget and, in some cases, even how he would say it ("we can't cut our way to prosperity").  Nothing new here.  Do I wish he would have spent eight and a half minutes talking about jobs and five and a half talking about the budget instead of the other way around?  Sure.  But I can't say I'm surprised.  Deficit reduction is hugely popular.  This is how you keep the peace in Dodge.

Jobs section (~5:30)

It's worth pointing out, to be fair, that while this specific section of the speech was only five and a half minutes long, the rhetoric on creating jobs permeated many other sections of the speech, which is great--jobs should be priority number one right now.


Obama kicked off this section with an appeal to the 113th Congress to pass the remaining portions of his 2011 American Jobs Act (AJA) which the 112th Congress didn't pass.  I, for one, was glad to hear Obama revive the AJA, even if much of it may be a non-starter for many congressional Republicans.  He went on to say that he will be laying out additional proposals in the SotU to create more jobs--none of which will "increase our deficit by a single dime."

First, he talked about a Manufacturing Innovation Institute that was created in Youngstown, OH and announced the creation of three more of these hubs in order to "turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs."  He also called upon Congress to "help create a network of fifteen of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America."  He also went on to call for new investments in research and development as well as new investments in energy--and while I'm not crazy about how he touted the natural gas industry, at least he used this as a lead in to...

Climate/Energy section (~3:00)

This is where the speech really began to pick up steam.  Obama called on Congress to "pursue a bi-partisan, market-based solution to climate change like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago."  This was a welcome (for me, anyway) reference to "Cap and Trade" (which has since become a non-starter with Republicans for some unbeknownst reason although I hold out hope that some form of it can pass through Congress).  He also stressed, however, (and this would develop into somewhat of a theme throughout the speech) that if Congress doesn't act, he will (via executive action).

I can't say I was happy to hear him propose cutting the red tape for oil and gas permits to help facilitate the natural gas boom.  I'm no fan of natural gas although I do acknowledge that in the short term it may be our best bet to ween ourselves off of our dependence on foreign oil--however, there is far from too much regulation on this industry.  In fact, there isn't nearly enough.

No this is not Photoshop or CGI.

In areas where companies are engaging in hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), the fluid used in this process often seeps into the environment and even the drinking water of the surrounding area, causing extreme health problems for those living in such areas as well as the now-infamous "flaming tap water" (seen above).  The Halliburton Loophole in the Clean Water Act makes it possible for fracking companies to refuse to disclose the "secret ingredients" of fracking fluid, many of which are, in all likelihood, quite harmful to human beings and the environment.  This also means that federal regulators are unable to study and regulate these chemicals to protect the health and safety of the people and the environment.

Infrastructure section (~2:00)

Not a whole lot to this section other than proposing a new "Fix-It-First" program to put people back to work immediately on the most urgent infrastructure projects (like rebuilding bridges) as well as a Partnership to Rebuild America to upgrade our ports, pipelines, and schools.  Still, it's great to hear advocacy for new infrastructure jobs.  Our crumbling infrastructure needs rebuilding and our struggling people need jobs.  This should be a no-brainer.

Housing section (~1:30)

Another short but sweet section.  Obama brought up a bill in Congress right now that would give families a chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing their mortgage at today's rates.  I would have liked to hear him specifically mention the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) or the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) by name--specifically HAMP which has been largely underutilized (most of the money approved by Congress for the program has yet to be used), but at least he made a push for refinancing.  In fact, the bill he's referring to is often referred to as "HARP 3.0".

Education section (~5:30)

I was so overjoyed to hear the president talk for five and a half minutes on education because to me, this is at the root of every other issue.  He kicked off the section by proposing "working with states to make high quality preschool available to every child in America."  This is what Joe Biden would call a "big fucking deal."  If he can get it done, this would be a once-in-a-presidency accomplishment--much like universal health care.



He also invoked Germany and places like it that equip their high school students which an education equivalent to a community college technical degree and called for us to follow the model of schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn which graduates students with a high school diploma as well as an associate's degree in computers or engineering which would be a huge step forward in ensuring that affordability of higher education has less impact on a person's future job prospects.

Finally, he called upon Congress to "change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid."  You really get the feeling that education is something he's passionate about and something he wants to be part of the legacy of his presidency.  I would have liked if he didn't focus so intently on the STEM fields or if there was even a mention of social sciences or liberal arts but I'll take what I can get.

Immigration section (~2:00)

He didn't spend much time on this one and he didn't really need to since he basically just outlined his Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) proposal that was released January 29th.  He echoed three of the four pillars of that plan: stronger border security, a path to citizenship, and streamlining the immigration system.  Since I never really took the time to share my thoughts on Obama's CIR proposal in this blog, this is a good chance to do that.  Here's why I feel that this proposal for Comprehensive Immigration Reform falls short of being Compassionate Immigration Reform (which I have previously copy/pasted in a few places):



On the one hand, this is a big step forward.  A path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, an expedited process for DREAMers and agricultural workers, protections of workers against retaliation for exercising their labor rights, streamlined immigration system, and tougher laws on transnational crime.
However, this plan also:
-Strengthens border security, meaning further militarization of our borders (including the use of surveillance drones), despite the fact that border security has doubled since 2004
-Expands efforts aimed at targeting convicted criminals for deportation which would include non-violent felony drug offenders (if you haven't yet picked up a copy of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander, do yourself a favor and get one) as well as the #1 offense among immigrants: nation re-entry (coming to the U.S. illegally, going back to your country and then being picked up by ICE trying to return to the U.S.--a felony offense)
-Forces applicants to pay estimated back taxes in addition to huge fines (the kind of money that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants don't exactly have on hand) while not being eligible for any federal benefits (including all benefits from Obamacare)

Women section (~1:00)

Not a whole lot going on here except for touting the Violence Against Women Act (which was finally signed this past week with the provisions for LGBT couples, undocumented immigrants, and American Indians living on reservations included, despite the objections of Eric Cantor and his ilk) and the Lily Ledbetter act guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work.  Nice to hear this stuff mentioned but one minute spent on women seems kinda...I dunno...patronizing.

Minimum Wage section (~2:00)

It may have been short and sweet but this was a big money section and something I (and, really, most people) definitely didn't see coming.  In this section, President Obama made one of his boldest proposals, calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and eventually to tie it to the cost of living.

There has been a lot said about this proposal.  One of the big conservative lines is that raising the minimum wage amounts to a tax on small businesses.  The problem with that argument is that the last time the minimum wage was raised (in 2007) the Senate added small business tax breaks to the bill to soften the impact.



Another thing being said is that Obama may have low-balled himself by only shooting for $9 an hour instead of setting his sights higher and leaving room for negotiation.  In fact, economists say that in order to bring the minimum wage up to its 1968 level in 2012 dollars, it would have to be raised to $10.50/hr and also that if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth it would be $16.54/hr.  Since the SotU, Sen. Tom Harkin [D-IA] and Rep. George Miller [D-CA] have announced plans to introduce legislation that would raise the wage to $10.10/hr.

Foreign Policy section (~11:30)

Eleven and a half minutes on foreign policy may sound a bit disproportionate until you consider that there are really only two types of policy--foreign policy and domestic policy--and the entire rest of the speech was dedicated to domestic policy.  Eleven and a half minutes for foreign policy is perfectly reasonable considering how many different items fall under the purvey of foreign policy.

The section began with a very familiar overture on the drawing down and reshaping of our mission in Afghanistan and the decimation of the infrastructure of al Qaeda--a section that could have been copy/pasted straight out of a campaign speech from last fall. 

One of the most interesting lines in the whole speech was the following: "And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans" especially as it came in the wake of a leak of a Justice Department memo providing justification for targeted killings of American citizens.  It struck me as a very clever way of paying lip service to the debate over the targeted killings program (specifically those carried out by drone strikes) without actually using the word "drone."  He also mused in the next paragraph about creating a "durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations" and vowed to "continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."  The administration has been doing a marginally better job of this since the SotU although the level of transparency has hardly been satisfactory and the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA chief (one of the main architects of the administration's "kill list" of potential targets for these strikes) doesn't bode well for critics of the targeted killings program (including Rand Paul, whose principled yet opportunistic 13-hour filibuster of Brennan's nomination brought a lot of attention to this issue).



There was also strong words for both Iran and North Korea in the SotU which were particularly salient coming just a day after North Korea performed a third nuclear test.  Since the SotU, the UN Security Council has unanimously voted for a new round of sanctions against North Korea. (In fact, China helped draft the resolution and voted in favor, signaling a potentially monumental shift in their policy toward North Korea)

There was also a section on cybersecurity in which President Obama announced a new executive order increasing information sharing and called upon Congress to pass "legislation to give our government greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks" (very likely a reference to the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)--legislation that has been criticized by Internet privacy and civil liberties advocates including the ACLU).

The trade section included not only a reference to the current negotiations toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership with East Asian countries but also the introduction of the idea of a Transatlantic trade partnership with the European Union.  I'm always a bit skeptical of trade agreements--especially with developing countries in East Asia--but I remain optimistic that these agreements will be fair and will stimulate domestic job growth rather than facilitating the shipping of jobs overseas and encouraging a "race to the bottom" for cheap labor.



At this point the speech wandered off into some nice, poetic, non-specific language about being a "beacon" of "freedom" and maintaining alliances and promoting Middle East stability and maintaining "the best military in the world" (while still reducing "waste and wartime spending", it should be noted).  He brought the FP section home by emphasizing the administration's commitment to our veterans and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better note to end the section on than that.

Voting Rights section (~1:30)

Again, short, sweet, and to the point.  This wouldn't be the only mention of voting rights as it came up in the closing section as well (more on that later).  He derided the fact that some Americans were forced to wait "five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot" proclaiming that by allowing this "we are betraying our ideals."  He announced a non-partisan commission headed by the top attorneys for his campaign and Mitt Romney's to "improve the voting experience in America."  Kind of non-committal, especially considering the current Supreme Court challenge of the 1964 Voting Rights Act under the pretense that it's no longer needed because, y'know, racism is over (a challenge that comes at a time when more discriminatory voting laws were struck down by the VRA than ever before).

Gun Control section (~4:00)

We all saw this one coming.  The SotU came at a time when the gun control debate was reaching a fever pitch in the wake of the Newtown massacre and the president (and his speech-writing staff) made this section deeply personal.  He referenced background checks, citing a bill being worked on in Congress (at the time) that would discourage "straw purchases" (buying guns for resale to those who can't legally purchase them)--a bill that just recently passed through committee and hopefully will soon make its way to the floor of the Senate.

He also invoked the prospect of banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines--which, sadly, has since been killed in Congress.  "Each of these proposals," the president mused, "deserves a vote in Congress.  If you want to vote no, that's your choice.  But these proposals deserve a vote."  This was a bold and direct attack on the partisanship in Congress that sees Senators refuse to invoke Cloture (fancy talk for calling for a vote--which requires 60 votes) on any measure they don't want an up-or-down vote on.  The "They deserve a vote" line would permeate this section and I gotta say, whoever came up with that line is my new idol and probably was the toast of the West Wing that night.

Then it got personal.  Obama told the story of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15 year old girl who performed at his inauguration only to be gunned down a week later in a Chicago park just a mile from Obama's house.  He spotlighted Hadiya's parents, who attended as his guests and implored the chamber: "They deserve a vote."  He went on: "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."  Truly some virtuosic speech-writing here.  But the best was yet to come...



Closing section (~4:00)

Honestly, there is no way for me to do this section justice through analysis the way I have with the more policy-specific sections of the speech.  This is just great writing and spectacular delivery.  It's been said that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.  But you know what?  Sometimes you govern in poetry.  And Barack Obama is one of the great presidential poets in our history.  And so, rather than continue my analysis, I'll just let the words of Mr. Obama and his brilliant speech-writing staff speak for themselves:

"Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I've outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.  We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

"We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country.  We should follow their example.

"We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez.  When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring--they were with the twenty precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.

"We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor.  When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours.  And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say.  Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her.  Because Desiline is 102 years old.  And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read 'I Voted.'

"We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy.  When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety.  He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside--even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.

"When asked how he did that, Brian said, 'That's just the way we're made.'

"That's just the way we're made.

"We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us.  But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

"We are citizens.  It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status.  It describes the way we're made.  It describes what we believe.  It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

"Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America."

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