State of the Union: What to expect from President Obama
President Obama will stand before members of Congress and a national television audience tonight to deliver his sixth annual State of the Union address. It’s pretty safe to assume it will include the following:
Paeans to the American dream, from the particular vantage of the middle class. Support for energy independence, education and changes in immigration laws. A short nod to international affairs, the winding down of wars abroad and the continued pursuit of terrorists. A laundry list of desires that the president knows will probably never see the light of day, even if all sides genuflect to the everyday Americans arrayed in the House chamber as witnesses, a theatrical touch of guilt-mongering employed since the era of President Reagan.
Those conclusions can be drawn from Obama’s five previous State of the Union addresses, which paint his tenure in sharp relief much as it has happened — a dramatic reaction to the national economic meltdown, then years of frustration salved by a few striking victories.
Throughout his first term and into his second, Obama has remained consistent in his demands; but for a few hints of the year in which they were delivered — particularly in 2011, when he congratulated Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on his recent appointment as House Speaker after the previous November’s Democratic swoon, and prayed with Congress for the recovery of one of its own, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who had recently been shot — several could have been switched with little discernable effect.
Here’s a look at his emphasis, year by year, as his presidency has progressed:
2009: A week earlier, Obama had signed one of the key successes of his first term, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus. Economic fears were rampant; the new president sought to instill confidence.
“I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven’t been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has: a friend, a neighbor, a member of your family. You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know that our economy is in crisis, because you live it every day. It’s the worry you wake up with and the source of sleepless nights. It’s the job you thought you’d retire from but now have lost, the business you built your dreams upon that’s now hanging by a thread, the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope. The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere.
“But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before…
“We are a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal. Now we must be that nation again, and that is why, even as it cuts back on programs we don’t need, the budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, healthcare and education.”
2010: One year in, Obama reasserted one of the arguments of his campaign, that with economic destruction so deep, recovery would not be instant. But his frustration with Washington was more evident.
“So I know the anxieties that are out there right now. They’re not new. These struggles are the reason I ran for president. These struggles are what I’ve witnessed for years, in places like Elkhart, Ind.; Galesburg, Ill. I hear about them in the letters that I read each night. The toughest to read are those written by children asking why they have to move from their home, asking when their mom or dad will be able to go back to work.
“For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated, some are angry. They don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn’t, or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They’re tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now....
“I campaigned on the promise of change. ‘Change we can believe in,’ the slogan went. And right now I know there are many Americans who aren’t sure if they still believe we can change or that I can deliver it. But remember this: I never suggested that change would be easy or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.”
2011: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, soon to be enshrined as Obamacare, had been signed by the president 10 months earlier. Obama sought to allay concerns about it with the suggestion, laughable even then, that Congress move on.
“Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new healthcare law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you. We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses. What I’m not willing to do — what I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition.
“I’m not willing to tell James Howard, a brain cancer patient from Texas, that his treatment might not be covered. I’m not willing to tell Jim Houser, a small-business man from Oregon, that he has to go back to paying $5,000 more to cover his employees. As we speak, this law is making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors and giving uninsured students a chance to stay on their patients’ — parents’ coverage. So I say to this chamber tonight: Instead of refighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing, and let’s move forward.…
“We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit, none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything: the costs, the details, the letter of every law.”
2012: As the campaign year began, Obama’s address read like the list of accomplishments he wanted voters to ponder that November. And the language regarding arguments “about everything” became more pointed as he condemned the capital’s “perpetual campaign of mutual destruction.”
“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of Al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
“These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example…
“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable so a crisis like this never happens again.
“The state of our union is getting stronger. And we’ve come too far to turn back now. As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. No, we will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits. Tonight I want to speak about how we move forward and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values.”
2013: His last national election concluded, Obama reiterated the need to boost the middle class, once again demanding an immigration bill and growing uncharacteristically angry when he referred to the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which had taken place less than two months earlier.
“We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class….
“In other words, we know what needs to be done. And as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. So let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done…
“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment — have come together around commonsense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets.…
“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.…
“They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. 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. They deserve a simple vote.”
A measure to expand background checks failed in the Senate, one of the few gun votes that Obama or the victims would get. And immigration reform? Still pending.
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