President Obama uses his last State of the Union address to look back on his many success and few failures
In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama brought to the table many of the significant issues that the United States faces in its coming years. Vice President Joe Biden sat behind the president for a final time next to Paul Ryan, who took his seat in this particular position for the first time.
The president argued that his administration has succeeded in making important reforms which have put the US on the path toward a bright future, provided that the imperatives which he has followed over the course of his presidency are cherished and maintained. He used the speech as an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of some of the policy reforms that his administration has sought, for example a chair was left empty next to the first lady’s guest box as a memorial to the victims of gun violence.
President Obama fundamentally sought to make this speech about the achievements of his administration as well as some of the problems which he believes will confront US lawmakers in the near future. Among them were jobs, education, corporate regulation, taxation, worker’s benefits, foreign policy, and trade. The president has, as of yet, neglected to endorse any Democratic candidate for president in the coming election. With this being said it is obvious that nearly all of the issues which he touched on will be huge points of contention across the aisle.
Jobs recovery was made a main issue for this White House. Coincidentally it was also made into an important point of criticism for those on the right side of the aisle. Republicans like Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, among others, have endlessly proceeded to criticize the president and his administration as “job destroyers.” Many on the right have simply latched onto this argument.
President Obama’s jobs approval rating has steadily grown since 2012. He touted the success which his administration has experienced in attempting to revitalize the American economy after the financial crises which began in 2007. He stated that:
“The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.”
Education reform has also been a main point of focus for the Obama administration. It was also a significant target of efforts made by the Bush administration. The president mentioned the bipartisan reforms sought through No Child Left Behind, but argued that more is still left to be done and that his administration has made efforts at improving the state of American education.
“We have to make college affordable for every American,” he said, “We’ve already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrower’s income. Now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”
The president stressed his continued support as well as his hope for a continued strength of support for government programs like Social Security and Medicare. Furthermore, he reiterated his support for the Affordable Care Act. Conservatives have repeatedly attempted to repeal this act, citing its inefficiency as well as its “unconstitutional” nature. In reality, this act serves to protect the rights of American citizens across the country who, under the previous system, were not able to obtain care.
“It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when we lose a job, or go back to school, or start that new business, we’ll still have coverage. Nearly eighteen million have gained coverage so far. Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.”
Mr. Obama addressed the progress his administration has made with respect to its foreign policy goals. At the top of his list was the current international struggle against the Islamic State in Syria-Iraq. For several months the combined efforts of several countries have been focused against this militant organization. As the situation continues to simultaneously worsen and improve in the region, many conservatives have taken to criticizing the Obama administration on the basis of its militancy while it maintains its external reputation as a fundamentally peacemaking institution.
“For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons. We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.”
The administration has seen multiple foreign policy successes, including the brokering of a nuclear deal with Iran this past summer. Obama made it a point to emphasize that, going forward, it will not and should not be the position of the United States to manage the internal affairs of nations around the world through the threat or actual utilization of military action.
The experiences, according to the president, of the last decade as well as the still unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should provide ample justification for this stance. The American imperialism of the past, for progressives, will need to be curbed in favor of a more inclusive and cooperative system of international diplomacy and up-building. The United States, in other words, cannot continue to shoulder the burden of supporting a good portion of the troubled world.
“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
The president commented that his administration has succeeded in lowering American dependence on oil which comes from the middle east. This is actually true. The United States has made significant progress toward achieving this.
The president also admitted that one of the few regrets of his presidency was the growth of hatred between the two sides of political debate. This is a trend which has been clearly palpable throughout his two terms. This opposition to bi-partisan behavior, however, was also something which started in the latter years of the Bush administration. One of Obama’s stated goals when he assumed office was to change the nature of politics in America, to a small extent this effort has succeeded and has, to an overwhelming extent, failed.
Obama also addressed the growing anti-Islamic sentiment that has found itself growing on the face of the American public. This type of Islamophobia is best characterized by the desire to actively deny Muslims the right to enter the United States. Additionally, the desire to actively monitor and harass Muslim citizens above and beyond the level of monitoring and harassment experienced by the average American citizen. These types of measures have been supported by many Republicans, like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. With respect to this, the president noted that:
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
Nikki Haley, the youngest serving governor in the country and a Tea Party favorite, was chosen to be the Republican to deliver the customary response to the State of the Union. Haley may be a possible Vice Presidential candidate, although only time will tell. Her response immediately began with the intent to criticize: “soon the Obama presidency will end and America will have the chance to turn in a new direction.”
She brought up the topic of immigration reform, which the president had mentioned would be a main point of administrative focus in his last State of the Union address in 2015, stating emphatically that “We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally.”
She continued to make the point that individuals who seek to enter the United States in a legal manner should be welcomed and should be given the benefit of an efficient immigration process which, she and many of her fellow Republicans argue, the Obama administration has not created. In making her statements about immigration, Haley appeared to make a subtle jab at several of the Republican candidates for president including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz.
Haley also stated that “the president’s record has often fallen far short of his soaring words […] as he enters his final year in office, many Americans are still feeling the squeeze of an economy too weak to raise income levels.” In some respects this is technically true however, the current economic situation in the United States is hardly a result of only the efforts of this administration. Once again it is important to note the catastrophic economy which Barack Obama inherited when he took office.
The South Carolina governor’s comments reflect a distinct disagreement within the Republican party. What is evident is that those conservatives who seek to become known and who desire a broad base of bipartisan support may have some issues with respect to their towing the party line for too long. Haley’s own voting record is mixed, with one of her few Republican herd-actions being a vote for a measure which acted to define marriage between a man and a woman as “the only domestic union recognized in the state.”
Progressives will no doubt look back on the years of the Obama presidency with mixed feelings. At one level, there is much that his administration achieved which was also promised from the outset. At another level there are things which were sought which did not come to fruition completely.
In moving toward a future which provides Americans with the greatest amount of opportunity, the affirmation of individual rights and liberties will remain of the utmost importance. Many of the points which the president made in his speech sit at the heart of this. Fundamentally, improving the state of the working classes as well as avoiding a backslide into regressive policy making is key.
For a full transcript of President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address, click here.