In sixth State of the Union address, Pres. Obama looks to ‘turn the page’

More progressive policies outlined for his last two years in office 

“TONIGHT, we turn the page.”

President Barack Obama addressed the joint Congress and the entire nation on Tuesday, Jan. 20, at the annual State of the Union address, held traditionally in the chamber of the House of Representatives. It was his sixth address as President, and his first with both houses of Congress under Republican control.

In a roughly hour-long speech, Obama applauded the breakthroughs accomplished in the 21st century, discussed international issues like the War on Terror and diplomatic relations with Cuba, and addressed ongoing discussions of the state of the economy and workers’ rights.

He also rolled out a series of proposals on his agenda aimed at benefiting the middle class, which Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, heavily criticized.

“It’s about the people’s priorities,” Boehner said in a YouTube video that evening. “Making the government bigger isn’t going to help the middle class. More growth and more opportunity will help the middle class, and those are the Republican priorities.”

The 6,493-word speech was met with both high hopes and criticisms from both lawmakers and the public, with many doubting the President’s defiant, optimistic tone and packed-agenda promises for the final two years of his term.

“After a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999,” Obama boasted of the accomplishments following America’s recent recession. “Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.”

“At this moment—with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

Tuesday night’s speech was the highlight of a weeks-long State of the Union “season,” in which President Obama plans to take his political agenda out of the White House and out on the road, straight to the people.

“The shadow of crisis has passed”

“America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: the shadow of the crisis has passed,” Obama declared, touting the economic progress that the country has experienced since he took office in 2008.

He praised what he called “middle-class economics” as policies that expand opportunity and continue to work, adding that “the country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share.”

Speaking in firm tones, Obama assured Congress of his pledge to not let politics get in the way of turning things around, the way he sees fit—starting with the economy and helping the growing middle-class.

We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” he said.

“And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things,” Obama firmly reassured, “it will earn my veto.”

He also repeated job-related proposals that would raise the standards in the American workplace and improve the quality of life for families: plans such as raising the minimum wage, and expanding paid leave for workers.

An estimated 39 percent of private-sector workers, mostly in low-wage industries such as food and retail, are not guaranteed paid sick days. Paid leave would largely benefit workers on the bottom “rung” of the economic ladder. Proposing a bill that would give every worker the right to earn seven days of paid sick leave, Obama said this is only “the right thing to do.”

He called out Congress members to fix the higher wage issue for “the hardest working people in America.”

“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” he said candidly.

The job of government, Obama stressed, is not to try and totally relieve economic hardships, but to ease working families’ burdens and simply give them a fairer shot.

Middle-class economics

Obama’s address also proposed several major tax changes that would benefit the middle-class, but cost wealthy taxpayers and financial service companies more—a capital gains tax rate hike up to 28 percent, according to White House officials.

“We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy,” he said.

By increasing taxes, which could raise at least $320 billion over 10 years, President Obama hopes to give billions in tax breaks to the middle-class, as well as fund his $60 billion proposal to make community college free for two years.

“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” he proposed. “We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college.”

With his ambitious plans to make community college tuition to hard-working students free for two years, Obama aims to boost college graduation rates, improve the workforce with better-skilled employees, and lift more people into the middle class. Many in Congress are critical, however, of this plan because of its cost and the often-negative image of success at community colleges.

Diplomatic relations

The president had already announced many of his plans prior to his big speech, including executive measures to protect millions of undocumented immigrants, plans of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and launching a remarkable climate change agreement with China.

“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere…and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” he said of his plans to lift the five-decade Cuban embargo, which has prohibited trade and commerce with the Caribbean country since 1960.

Striking a deal with China’s leader Xi Jinping last November, Obama has also promised to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions through 2025, seeking to lead a global effort against climate change.

“Because the world’s two largest economies came together… [we are] offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.”

Addressing national security and the global war on terrorism, Obama used very strong language to establish his authority as Commander-in-Chief and stand together with world leaders, and called upon Congress to “show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”

He promoted a “smarter kind of American leadership,” one done best when combining military power with strong diplomacy between nations, opposing aggression to stand together against violent extremism.

“That’s how America leads—not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”

Securing the nation

Speaking to a newer issue on defending the US, the President promised to protect “free and open internet,” and extend its reach to classrooms and communities with smarter, faster networks that can lead to digital innovation.

Outlining his vision for stronger cybersecurity, Obama wants to protect agencies and consumers from data breaches and firewall hacks. His speech urged Congress to pass legislation that he promises will combat identity theft and cybercrime with a new, bolstered security system and the increased sharing of information between private companies and the government. This announcement comes after high-profile cybersecurity breaches in the past year, including hacks on major companies like Target and Sony.

“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families,” he said. “We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism.”

‘Your life matters’

Obama also spoke on global and human rights issues aimed at providing solutions to better our world from unforeseen events. For instance, the Precision Medicine Initiative will help conduct research to bring scientists closer to curing global diseases and epidemics, such as the recent Ebola outbreak.

“I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters, and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids,” the president said.

Some say his words “your life matters” was the closest Obama got to saying the well-known “Black Lives Matter” phrase, coined after the recent cop-involved shooting events in Ferguson and New York.

The LGBTQ community also praised Mr. Obama for “respecting human dignity” and acknowledging their invisible groups—especially when he said the word “transgender” during his speech, advocating for the rights of all minorities and immigrants, and condemning the persecution of these communities.

He commended the devoted doctors in West Africa, the brave troops overseas, and the unseen heroes in the US who are working day by day to build a better world. “But the job is not yet done,” he remarked.

‘Tight-knit family’

Despite the GOP’s new control of Congress, Obama made no mention of the Democratic Party’s losses in the November elections.

“I have no campaigns to run,” he said.

As Republican leaders applauded, the president strayed away from his prepared remarks and quipped, “I know, because I won both of them.”

Recognizing that his ideas would have a slim chance of being approved, Obama exhorted the GOP to take his agenda seriously and work together despite their differences.

“If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree.”

Rather than focusing on the “checklist of proposals,” he urged, Congress should focus more on the “values at stake” in its’ choices, beginning with the economy and helping all Americans move forward.

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he asked. “Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.”

Lastly, he commended the US as a “strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times,” and deserves practical, lasting solutions for the future.

“My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol—to do what I believe is best for America,” Obama finished. “And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.” (With reports from TIME, CNN, HuffPost, WashPost, ABC News, Associated Press, MSNBC) 

(New York & New Jersey January 23-29, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)

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