In 2010, “Despite our hardships, our Union is strong.” In 2011, “…and the state of our Union is strong…” In 2012, “…and the state of our Union will always be strong…” and in 2013, “…we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our Union is stronger…”
While I am perfectly aware that the State of the Union address has been little more than an American pep rally for years, the blatant lying which President Obama has committed in every State of the Union address he has delivered is startling. What exactly is it about our union that is strong? Is it the crippling polarization which has created such deep divisions that our parties can scarcely agree on what time it is, let alone undertake the pressing issues which face our nation? Is it the very slow economic recovery which still forces millions of job-seeking Americans to rely on unemployment benefits? Or perhaps it is the debilitating fear of gun violence sweeping the country.
That being said, there were a few bright spots within the president’s hour long speech, although even these will likely be blotted out by partisan resistance. In what was a fairly clear attempt to appeal to Republicans, President Obama called for, “…not a bigger government…but a smarter government…” A smarter government is indeed a noble goal, as ours is already large and reducing its size to the degree many Republicans desire is simply impossible. An intelligent government which streamlines regulations, closes tax loopholes, and eliminates bulky bureaucracy would not only increase the revenue our nation generates but also allow that revenue to be spent in a more efficient manner.
Two areas which the president pointed out as a vital areas which ought to receive that efficient spending are infrastructure and education. As a lifelong resident of the Rust Belt, I can assure you that our nation’s infrastructure is in bad need of repair. The amount of bridges I have driven over and under which appear to be moments away from collapsing defies logic. Some will say that such repairs should not be the federal government’s concern; rather, they would prefer the states to handle these projects. These critics are willfully ignorant of the national nature of practically every road in that country. The United States is such a complexly interconnected nation that a bridge collapse anywhere has economic impacts almost everywhere.
Education was another prominent plank in President Obama’s speech. He called for universal access to adequate preschool education for every child in America. As often reported, better educated individuals are more likely to be successful and responsible citizens than their education-deficient counterparts. The president also cited the success of his Race to the Top program, a competition amongst states to reform their education systems in order to receive more federal dollars. While Republicans may hate federal government spending on education, there are few things states love more than receiving federal grants to fund projects. Overall, however, President Obama’s segment on education was heavy in ideas but light on suggestions. He called for many things, but proposed few concrete solutions. This is of course the nature of such addresses, but disappointing nonetheless.
Another entertaining aspect of the State of the Union was the subtle, but noticeable, blame shifting the president conducted. While never outright assigning fault to Congress, it was visible that he attempted to slip in the idea that it is Congress’ fault for the stagnation of the government, not his. First was the call to end manufactured crises such as the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff debacles. Then there were the times he said “send me that bill.” This served as a reminder that the president cannot do much independently of Congress.
The most disappointing aspect of the address—aside from the incessant clapping with scant cause—was when President Obama turned to voting. When any American, he said, is denied the right to vote due to long waiting lines, sometimes in excess of five hours, “we are betraying our ideals.” Incredibly long lines to vote is indeed a gross, and frankly shocking, flaw in our electoral system, but the president passed up the chance to attack an even greater threat to voting rights: voter ID laws. These laws, passed by numerous states in the run-up to the 2012 election, require voters to present photo IDs in order to vote, instead of simply a proof of ID. It has been speculated that these laws would have a discriminatory effect, blocking predominantly minority voters. Even if that is false, the laws still violate the Constitution. It only eludes the mind of a fool that such laws violate the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, outlawing any form of poll tax. These laws, which require citizens to purchase a photo ID to vote, are undeniably a poll tax. President Obama missed a chance to make this point to the millions of Americans who watched the address live and read newspaper accounts of it the next day. A true shame.
President Obama delivered a fine speech on Tuesday. He spoke with his usual cadence, offered up a few new ideas in what was otherwise a summary of the problems faced by our nation, and avoided any large controversies. The president laid out several areas where America needs progress. Here’s hoping that next year, we hear about the progress made, not the progress desired.