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Following the SOTU, Will Anything Change?

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Last Tuesday, President Obama's State of the Union speech attracted 33.3 million viewers, a little more than 10 percent of our nation's population, and the fewest since 2000. On the other hand, the Super Bowl -- the nation's major sporting event of the year -- drew an average of 111.5 million viewers, making it the most watched television program in U.S. history. Was this a sad indicator of where our priorities as a nation actually lie, or could it be that we just needed a break from our grid-locked politics? We are battle-worn, disgusted and frankly, exhausted.

To those who did watch the SOTU, it was a less than inspiring event, even though the president offered a little something for everyone, even stating that he will invoke his executive powers to get some things done if Congress does not act. Of course, those powers are limited in scope, but even so his comment did not sit well with the GOP, who found little to cheer about during the speech and mostly sat in stony silence like a morticians' convention, looking as grim as Speaker Boehner did sitting beside Vice President Biden behind the president as he spoke. Boehner's indignation reached a high point when he said, "I have the honor to introduce the President of the United States" to the chamber and a national TV audience. Throughout the speech he either looked as if he was falling asleep or trying to keep from throwing up, as he disrespectfully rolled his eyes.

The president did not start his speech with the usual "The state of our union is strong," presumably because that would be a lie. Instead, he threw out issue after issue, without ever establishing an overarching narrative or providing details about how they would be resolved. To be fair, there was some mention of building ladders to opportunity for the middle class and those below, and of the new skills and training needed for the jobs coming from the global economy -- if President Obama is serious about this issue, then education must move to the forefront of his agenda for the next three years.

Some key issues addressed by the president in his speech - and the stark realities associated with many of them - included:

  • His proposal -- under the banner "Give America A Raise" -- to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Indeed, this wage should be hinged to inflation going forward -- had the minimum wage kept up with inflation, it would now be around $17.00 per hour. The downside is that this increase will not kick in until new contracts are negotiated or old contracts renegotiated, which might not take place until 2015. The upside is that it could propel a raise of the minimum wage for the rest of the country. Even though such a raise would only move these workers to just above the poverty line, it still remains a must-do for this Congress, as 20 million would benefit along with the economy.
  • The energy and climate crises. Unfortunately, instead of pointing us in the right direction toward increased development of truly clean energy sources like solar, water and wind, the President chose to tout as signs of progress increases in domestic oil and natural gas production - achieved in no small part through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," something he neglected to mention. Are you still unaware, Mr. President, that fracking is immensely unpopular with a large segment of the country that opposes this unhealthy and destructive process? In New York State the outcry has been so loud that the governor has still not approved fracking, and is currently awaiting a report from the Health Department on its impact on the health of the people and environment of our state. There was also no mention of the Keystone XL pipeline, which on Monday brought about -according to an e-mail I received from Public Citizen - 238 vigils and protests in 49 states from a growing movement of Americans that want it stopped. This was in response to the Friday release of the State Department's final review of the Keystone XL pipeline, which amazingly left out any real analysis of its effect on climate change, which was the whole point of the study. The President should reject the study and stop this pipeline. Some good news on the fossil-fuel front is that in the past few day some five oil companies, including Shell, said they would abandon drilling for oil in the Arctic, as it is too dangerous and costly. These are pristine lands that should be left untouched for generations to come, so such a development is welcome news indeed.
  • Our national infrastructure. Again, the president gave no details on those nearly 7,900 crumbling bridges across the country, many of which are on the verge of collapse. Rebuilding or repairing these bridges alone could serve as an enormous boost to the economy.
  • Ending our involvement in Afghanistan -- the longest war in American history. Again, the president stumbled when he said he would still leave "a small force of Americans" -- by some estimates up to 10,000 -- in Afghanistan after 2014 to "train" and "assist" the Afghan forces and continue to pursue "any remnants of al-Qaida," with apparently no end in sight to their deployment -- a Vietnam in reverse.
  • Immigration reform. The president talked a good game here, but his deportation numbers paint a different picture, as they are the highest of any president, with 1,100 per day being deported, tearing families and communities apart. No mention was made of that. An article in this past Saturday's New York Daily News mentioned that the President is now considering offering "legal status" to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, with a "regular process" for attaining citizenship over time. The GOP's stated priority, of course, is security, both on the border and internally. Is the president copping out because 2014 is an election year? Of course he is. This issue has dragged on for thirty years, and there is still no end in sight.
  • The President also mentioned the need for the poor -- yes, the "P" word actually appeared three times in the speech, a first for this administration -- to have a retirement plan, too, in which they could contribute even small amounts. Still, it is hard to figure how low wage earners will have even $25 a month to put away for their retirement when they struggle to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. And just how significant would those savings be over thirty years of work? The president has said many, many times that if people work hard they should earn a living wage, so a more prudent path would be to keep raising those low level wages to track with inflation until no one who works for a living remains in poverty, as well as to increase Social Security benefits to those receiving this earned benefit. Mr. President, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have already made that suggestion, and you should start listening to them.
  • We also heard about the president's new support for women workers, whom he noted earn 77 cents of each dollar paid to men. Also, nearly 60 percent of those low wage earners in America are women, most of them with children.
  • The president also brought up the great need to extend unemployment insurance to those 1.3 million who lost it at Christmas. 3.6 million more may be added to those numbers this year if Congress does not act.

Some key points missing from the president's speech, and one big error in judgment on his part, included:

  • The corrupt, secret money controlling our government and the disgraceful effect the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision has had on our country for the past four years. Its effect can be seen in the Farm Bill just passed that calls for a cut of $8 billion in SNAP (food stamps) for the most vulnerable over ten years, on top of a cut already made to this program this past November. If the president wants to see a functioning Congress that represents the best interests of the country, he should have talked about this. How does he expect anything to be different in 2014 and beyond otherwise?
  • Gun control - the fact that nothing has been done in Congress about this issue is a travesty.
  • The president is also wrong to keep pressuring wavering Democrats to support fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement ("TPP"). He has apparently learned little from the failures of NAFTA -- which cost America one million jobs -- the WTO and CAFTA, resulting in more US jobs lost, including 5 million in manufacturing alone -- 60,000 manufacturing facilities have been closed since the implementation of NAFTA. The TPP will consolidate corporate power on a scale we have never seen before over a wide swath of the globe and on many fronts from which we would never recover. Many of our rights would disappear with it, and it is doubtful that many of the jobs it promises to deliver will ever materialize. Much of the nation is opposed to this so-called trade "deal," which is anything but. It is now twenty years after NAFTA and it serves as a stark reminder of our failed trade policies that have exported millions of American jobs, increased economic inequality, contributed to our trade deficits, done little for the people of the countries with which we have partnered in these agreements, and has led to millions more migrating to our shores in desperate search of better opportunities than are being offered in their home countries through these boondoggles. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to fix NAFTA, yet we are still waiting. Last Wednesday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he does not support fast-tracking this deal, a process that would remove Congress' right to debate this bill and make amendments to it. Instead, they would be left to vote on this complex deal that has been three years in the making in secrecy, with 600 lobbyists and corporate entities negotiating behind closed doors. Of course, this alarming situation warranted no comments from the president, who must think that the American people are also asleep at the switch, like much of Congress. Yet there are 151 Democrats in Congress who do not support the fast track bill, so the disapproval is at least high in certain quarters in DC. Now that Reid has stepped forward, it is time for Nancy Pelosi to also go on the record and galvanize her caucus in the House to oppose fast tracking and to demand that all of the contents in this trade deal be given to every Congressmember and offered to the public. That is what a true democracy does.

Paul Krugman said on Sunday's Meet The Press that he considers President Obama to have been a lame duck since 2010. How much can he expect to get done under these conditions? Amending Citizens United must move to the front burner if we are ever to regain our democracy. There are over 150 coalition member organizations fighting to see this happen, and over 500 towns and municipalities have passed resolutions calling for an amendment. Sixteen states also support an amendment, with more expected this year, and about 140 members of Congress are also on board. This is the issue of our time.

Mercifully, the deficit did not have a stranglehold on this SOTU, as it has now been halved. And there was no mention of cutting "entitlements," otherwise known as our earned benefits. Will such cuts be looming in March, though, when the budget steps front and center on the national stage again? Watch for the sparks to fly on this one.

The SOTU ended with a great and memorable moment, when severely injured First Sergeant Ranger Cory Remsburg was introduced to the chamber and the nation by the president. He stood -- aided by his father -- proudly wearing his uniform. Injured on his tenth deployment in Afghanistan when a bomb exploded, he suffered a brain injury, the loss of vision in one eye and paralysis on his left side, affecting his speech, yet he endeavors tirelessly in his rehabilitation. He even managed to exchange a thumbs-up with the president. The applause was long and heartfelt for this warrior, who was able to bring the room to its feet in complete and utter bipartisanship for the first time. Sincere unity could be felt in that chamber and across the country through our shared gratitude for Cory's service and sacrifice. When will we see that again?

-with Jonathan Stone