President Obama’s last State of the Union address was a momentous one. His talk of a recovering economy was inspiring and his talk of returning soldiers was heartwarming. The vision he described for a future with a thriving middle class undoubtedly brought hope and confidence to many.
His tone mirrored these sentiments throughout the hour-long speech. He projected satisfaction and pride when talking about the United States as a world leader in oil and gas as well as wind power. He was humbled when telling Rebekah’s story of a “strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
Most profound of all was when he elicited a tone of both frustration and defiance in the face of the gender inequalities that still pervade the country. Alluding to the inaction of Congress specifically, he stated outright that one of the biggest priorities is making sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. “Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”
Throughout his term, he has made strategic and necessary use of his power of executive action. From immigration to the minimum wage to climate change, he has been able to accomplish many of his biggest priorities in office despite the inaction and opposition in Congress. He boldly stood up to the newly Republican Congress in explicit declarations that he will not back down on the issues that matter most to the country. In regards to climate change, he announced, “I will not let Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.”
President Obama’s rhetorical abilities are unquestionably astounding. As the head of the country, he certainly lived up to the image of a strong, proud (and witty) leader during his State of the Union speech.
However, one thing that was conspicuously absent from his address was any comment on the ongoing race issues in the United States.
#BlackLivesMatter is a national movement that began in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murder. It has only started to gain traction since the shooting of Michael Brown, the strangling of Eric Garner and the countless unnamed black men, women and children who have continued to die at the hands of the police force in the country. The recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past Monday brought about a renewed energy in the protests around the country in honor of MLK’s legacy of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.
And yet, Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday evening had no mention of this. It had no mention of the movement that hundreds of thousands of people have joined forces with in staged protests, die-ins and demonstrations across the nation. It had no mention of the call for the demilitarization of police forces and a National Plan of Action for Racial Justice.
Why is it that the most publicly talked about issue currently is one of the few that went ignored in this State of the Union address? Why is it that Obama has not made any public comment on the protests or ongoing race issues in the nation since his statement on the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision on Nov. 24, 2014?
This is more than just an oversight; it is a deliberate omission of a statement on an issue that affects everyone in the country — a tough issue, yes, but an imperative one nonetheless. While the State of the Union is a time to take pride in the progress that the United States has made in the past seven years, it is also a time to address the mistakes that the administration has made and proposals to remedy them moving forward. There is no easy fix to the systematic racism that is entrenched in the country, but as the President of the United States, Obama has the duty to work towards a more comprehensive plan of action. Regardless of our president’s race, we should expect him to address the important current issues. Race relations is certainly one of those.
Yes, the progress of the country is tremendous. Yes, our accomplishments are something to take pride in. But until the cries and protests of so many are acknowledged, we cannot celebrate the United States. Until something concrete is done about the systematic racism in the United States, we must remain steadfast in our protests and look to the government with a critical eye. And because of this, we should applaud President Obama on uplifting his speech, but we should not consider it a success. We should consider it an evasion of the issues at hand.
Contact Aimee Trujillo at ‘aimeet ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Last Tuesday, President Obama stepped up to the lectern in the House of Representatives chamber to address the Congress and the country for his penultimate State of the Union address. After he stepped down, the cameras focused in on the Senate Armed Services committee chamber, where Joni Ernst, the newly minted Senator from Iowa, delivered the official response from the party now in control of Capitol Hill.
On the surface, the speeches the two delivered have a lot in common. Both Obama and Ernst tried to humanize their messages with anecdotes of working-class life in the Midwest, for instance, and they even mentioned some of the same policy goals for this coming year, notably the idea of plugging the loopholes that exist in our behemoth of a tax code.
But under the surface, the two speeches reflect two incredibly divergent ideas about governing that will likely define the coming legislative year. Obama’s speech, in essence, tells the rest of us to come to him; Ernst’s speech, on the other hand, says that Congress is coming to the rest of us.
Obama’s address was as much about him as it was about his policy ideas for the year, if not more so. The ideas he erroneously called “middle-class economics” fit into the narrative of bigger, more paternalistic government that he’s espoused since first campaigning for the presidency in 2007, without regard to the slap in the face he and his policies got in this past election. Even his repeated assurances that our currently incredibly divided nation is a “strong, tight-knit family” implicitly tell the country that he’s that family’s pater familias, and, after all, father knows best.
Senator Ernst, conversely, started her speech with the goal of having a dialogue with the rest of the country about the our priorities and concerns that Washington has ignored. She spoke calmly and directly, and when she did talk about her own life experiences, she did in a way that connected her with the rest of us on an equal footing. And rather turning her response into a lecture from a bully pulpit or a direct political jab at Obama, she gave us a short heart-to-heart. Her focus always stayed on what the people of the United States want.
For Ernst and her fellow Republicans, that position is precisely the one they needed to take. Coming off the heels of their sweeping Congressional victory in November, they have the will of the people — our will — on their side in a lot of ways, and they’re going to have to maintain that will for the next two years in order to build coalitions with Congress’ remaining Democrats. With popular issues like Keystone XL already on the docket, and controversial issues like abortion already causing commotion in the House, making those coalitions will prove of utmost importance to Republicans trying to pass legislation that can withstand a veto from an intractable Obama.
If anything, the President’s State of the Union address showed how committed he is to that intractability. He has watched for years as his State of the Union proposals quietly die in Congress because of the antagonism that still exists between the Legislative and Executive Branches under Obama. Nonetheless, he still used his one guaranteed moment in the spotlight to take on his GOP opponents rather than take in their ideas. Despite a throw-away line near the end of his address about working across the aisle, he went as far as to threaten vetoes with two issues, economic regulation and Iran sanctions, adding to the veto he already threatened on the Keystone XL bill. And with no more elections on his horizon, he can afford to dig himself in even more.
As this year progresses, then, it looks like we will still face a divided government like the kind that has existed in Washington for most of Obama’s presidency. But instead of gridlock founded on differences in political ideology between parties, it looks like the difference in governing philosophies will take the fore.
The man who campaigned on change certainly won’t change how he governs in the next few months. So now, the onus lies on the Republican Party to make the federal government work — and work for us.
The GOP needs to take the spirit of Joni Ernst’s speech and infuse their every action with it this year. Obama has already blustered and threatened his vetoes, and he will continue to try and control the debate on every issue Congress takes up. As such, it’s up to Republican legislators to ignore him as much as they can, even with his high rhetoric directed exclusively towards their downfall. Instead, they must focus on bridging the gaps between them and the Democrats in Congress; assuming both parties come to the table willing to work together, then working together could yield great things. But to do so, they must remember what Senator Ernst did last week and listen to what the people of the United States actually want them to do.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.