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The True State of the Union

Friends of YES! Magazine turn the president's address into a conversation about what it will really take to build a more perfect union.

State of the Union 2010

President Obama delivered his annual address to Congress on January 27, 2010.

Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Across the country, Americans of all backgrounds are working to form a more perfect union—one that lives up to its ideals of providing liberty and justice for all. YES! Magazine asked some of these leaders to respond to President Obama's address on the state of our union, continuing the conversation about where the country stands—and where it can go.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood :: Change Is Not Inevitable
Fran Korten: What Obama Didn't Say
Adrienne Maree Brown: The Work of Transformation
Sarah van Gelder: Where's the Change We Can Believe In?
Sheikh Jamal Rahman: Choose Your Jailers with Care
Rabbi Ted Falcon: The State of Polarization
John Feffer: Good Politics, Bad Economics
Robert Naiman: Peace, Reconciliation, and Debt in the President's Speech
Alisa Gravitz: Victory for Clean Energy
Jeff Biggers: The Coal State of the Union
Joseph Cirincione: The End of Nuclear Weapons
Stephen Zunes: The Way to Nuclear Disarmament
Pastor Don Mackenzie: We Can Begin the World Anew

 

Change Is Not Inevitable—

We Have to Make It Happen

Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president, Hip Hop Caucus

Our Constitution declares that from time to time, the President shall give to Congress information about the state of our union. For 220 years, our leaders have fulfilled this duty. They've done so during periods of prosperity and tranquility. And they've done so in the midst of war and depression; at moments of great strife and great struggle.

It's tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable—that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run, and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt. When the market crashed on Black Tuesday, and civil rights marchers were beaten on Bloody Sunday, the future was anything but certain. These were the times that tested the courage of our convictions, and the strength of our union. And despite all our divisions and disagreements, our hesitations and our fears, America prevailed because we chose to move forward as one nation, as one people.

Just before I sat down to watch the State of the Union I got word that Howard Zinn had passed away, at 87 years of age. This deeply sad news of course impacted how I listened to President Obama’s words during the State of the Union.

The President began his speech by reminding us that the course of our nation’s history was never inevitable, but our successes and growth over time are a product of our courage of conviction and our strength of unity. While history is quite clear that our progress has been anything but harmonious and unified, I do agree that our country’s path was never inevitable—and it never will be. As Dr. King said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

The so-called reforms that the president spoke of, from health care to our financial institutions, are shaping up to be more on the side of status quo than systemic change. The great Howard Zinn would note, however, that a strong progressive movement has the opportunity to push our country in a better direction.

We need climate and green jobs legislation this year. We need a health care system with a strong public option. We need to make headway on reversing the undoing of our constitutional rights over the past decade.

I could continue to list the issues where a strong progressive movement must rise up and push our president to see what is possible, not what seems inevitable. But, I believe if we really want to disturb the course of history, to one day tell a story of organized people’s triumph over organized money, we must build a movement around Haiti. If Wall Street is too big to fail, than so is Haiti.

As the president said, we are being tested, and we must answer history’s call. But in memory of Mr. Zinn, it’s the people’s history that is calling, and to answer it, we cannot let Haiti fail in their recovery and struggle to overcome two hundred years of depraved international policy as the world’s first black republic.

As the Haitians say, "l'union fait la force," or "in unity there is strength." Let our strength of unity and courage of conviction drive the course of world history towards peace, justice, and prosperity.

For more information on Rev. Yearwood’s work on Haiti, visit www.HipHopHelpHaiti.org.

 

What Obama Didn’t Say

Fran Korten, publisher, YES! Magazine

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.

Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved. But I wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks that families all across this country have faced this year. And what keeps me going—what keeps me fighting—is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American people, that lives on.

As I listened to the president’s State of the Union address, I kept thinking about the speech we might have been listening to if we had elected a different president or still had the previous one.

First—he didn’t start out with fear; he started with hope. He didn’t talk about the dangerous world out there and barely mentioned terrorism; he talked about this country, its strengths, and its needs.

He didn’t talk about across-the-board tax cuts, which we know have the greatest benefit for the very rich; he talked about tax cuts for the middle class and small business, and tax increases for those earning over $250,000.

He didn’t express skepticism about global climate change, though he recognized there are still skeptics; he spoke about the opportunity the threat opens for creating a new energy agenda and more jobs.

He didn’t talk about reducing regulations to free the market to work its magic; he talked about tougher regulations and fees for the big investment banks that brought on our financial crisis and health reform that cuts costs and prevent people from being denied coverage.

He didn’t talk about providing federal guarantees to unleash the power of the nuclear energy industry; he tucked his nod to nuclear under his research agenda: getting “safe nuclear”—though I was sorry he felt the need to say that and even sorrier to see the roar of approval he got from both sides of the aisle.

He didn’t talk about other countries as enemies to be feared nor the need to strengthen the military; he talked about others as allies and partners, and about the need to move to a world without nuclear weapons.

He didn’t ignore the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that opens the floodgates even further to corporate money in our political system; he said we must take action to correct this problem. (He didn’t back any ideas about how to do so, but fortunately there are good ideas out there, as I noted in “10 Ways to Stop Corporate Influence in Politics.”)

He didn’t attack the opposing party—though he is clearly frustrated at their “just say no” stance; he held out the desire for the parties to work together and recognized that politics is noisy, messy, and complicated.

I disagreed with a number of his points and wished he had gone further with others. But I also kept thinking about how easy it is to forget what a different speech we could have been listening to. We tend to take for granted what we like and pounce on what we don’t. As I watched him roll out his agenda for change, I saw once again the glow of his faith that this country can be great, that we have the ability to solve our problems, and we really can come together to do it.

 

The Work of Transformation

Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director, The Ruckus Society

Our most urgent task upon taking office was to shore up the same banks that helped cause this crisis. It was not easy to do. And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it—I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.

But when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular—I would do what was necessary. And if we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today. More businesses would certainly have closed. More homes would have surely been lost.

So I supported the last administration's efforts to create the financial rescue program. And when we took that program over, we made it more transparent and more accountable. And as a result, the markets are now stabilized, and we've recovered most of the money we spent on the banks. Most, but not all.

 I like Obama. I liked him while he was campaigning and I like him now. He gives me a sense that there is someone with sense in the White House. That's the best someone like me can expect. I want to see radical choices, and the presidency is a position of strategic compromises. I want systems that place people over profits, and Obama is the president of a nation founded in capitalism where corporations can become people through the magic of the Supreme Court. So I echo my friend Gibran Rivera's reaction—"In a broken system, where he must play by the rules of a broken game, we are blessed to have a great president."

What I want to shout, directly after that, is a message we all have to get through our heads. You cannot make a truly dirty thing clean, and you cannot make a truly dangerous thing profitable. Eventually the dirt will get on your hands, the danger will explode on you. When I hear the terms clean coal and clean nuclear, it is as if the President said the Tooth Fairy will be collecting Wall Street bonuses to redistribute to us, I think, "Oh cute, you still believe, eh?" But it's not cute when I think about my nephew and soon-to-be-born niece growing up in an apocalyptic environment because, at the pivotal moment for the planet, we were investing in mythology instead of changing our national culture around energy. I say that as a woman of color, working with poor people, indigenous people, urban people—we all get it. Why don't you get it?

Otherwise, he's funny. He's deep. And we have to keep doing the transformative work to cover the ground he's compromising.

 

Can We Still Believe in That Change Obama Ran On?

Sarah van Gelder, executive editor, YES! Magazine

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions—our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government—still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.

No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment.

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.

President Obama's speech shows little understanding of the time we're in or of the daily experience of real Americans. Maybe it comes from being in D.C. for a solid year now.

  • In the last 18 months, Wall Street nearly brought the world economy to its knees, paid itself huge bonuses, and, with the boldness of a gambler backed up by the U.S. Treasury, is out doing more of the same.
  • The American people, meanwhile, are suffering from joblessness, housing foreclosures, unaffordable and complicated health insurance bureaucracy, and an economy that continues to stumble, with no real reason to believe it will recover.
  • The window of time we have to confront our climate crisis is closing, and the impacts on our economy, security, biodiversity, agriculture, access to water, and the habitability of our coastlines is just starting to be felt. Desperately needed action is being stalled by special interests.
  • The war in the Middle East threatens to expand, the casualties continue to grow, and the military budget keeps ballooning, while no one in the administration can say what we can reasonably expect to accomplish there.

To deal with these and other crises, Obama will have to overcome the influence of powerful special interests, who work overtime to block any progress that could threaten their quarterly profits. He can only overcome those powerful interests when he partners with the American people.

Early on, I was encouraged that a president who came up as a community organizer would know how to do that. Even before Inauguration day, he was holding health care house meetings across the country to create a foundation for action. And when the workers at Republic Window and Door, who were laid off without the pay they were owed, occupied their factory, Obama reached out a hand of support.

But the insider disease seems to have taken over. Obama's health care proposal was already a compromise—keep private insurance companies, but offer the public a strong public option. From that starting point, it was compromised again and again until it is now more give-away to health insurance companies and PhRMA than benefit to Americans. The mass movements pressing for single-payer health care (which at the time enjoyed majority support) weren't invited into the process to balance the special interests and ideological opponents of a strong public option. Instead, they were excluded from White House summits and systematically ignored.

When Wall Street greed threatened to crash the economy, Obama's inner circle wrote blank checks to some of the worst offenders, establishing a precedent that the most risky global gambling is backed by the American taxpayer. (Obama's recent announcement that he is dealing with the "too big to fail" issue is promising, but the details will be what counts. And precious time and momentum have been lost).

So yes, Americans are furious. The Massachusetts vote disproved what Democratic Party insiders have said—you can take the progressives for granted. After all, where can they go? To the Republicans? To the Greens? Here's the answer. If they are excluded from the process, progressive voters, and the progressive activists who built the grassroots Obama campaign, have shown they can stay home on election day.

President Obama, it is not too late to make common cause with the American people. Instead of feeding them a list of policy tweaks—a tax credit here, and new commission there—go back to the vision of "change we can believe in." Admit the mistake of trying to placate Wall Street and recalcitrant Republicans. Show you can fight for the American people, and the American people will stand with you.

You'll have to start by taking on the corporate special interests that crippled our economy, undercut the promise of health care reform, and stalled desperately needed action on climate change. Partner with the young people, the working people, state and local government, small business, the grassroots leaders who believed in change. Work with those who don't mind telling the truth about the effectiveness of single-payer health care, even if you don't agree with them. Get rid of your Wall Street economic advisers, and bring in a team that is rooted in the real, Main Street economy. Tell the story of what is happening to our country, with the clarity and unity of purpose that you are so good at. It's not too late to bring us together, not by scolding partisanship, but by helping us see our common purpose and how we can take courageous action, together, to make change more than a belief—to make it a reality.

 

Choose Your Jailers with Care and Deliberation

Sheikh Jamal Rahman, Muslim Sufi minister, Interfaith Community Church

Jamal Rahman is one of the three Interfaith Amigos, who blog at yesmagazine.org

Of course, none of these reforms will even happen if we don't also reform how we work with one another. Now, I'm not naïve. I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, they've been taking place for over 200 years. They're the very essence of our democracy.

Last night President Obama stated, “I never suggested that change would be easy or that I can do it alone.” This splashed in my chest! The words rang true for me. Alas, we are mired in political tribalism. We are prisoners to our tribal affiliations and we go out of our way to demean and dominate the other. The simple truth is that, without collaboration between Democrats and Republicans on every level of our society, authentic change and progress are not possible.

Tribal affiliations are familiar to me. I come from Bangladesh, where elections, though democratic, often offer a discouraging choice between government and opposition factions that spend most of their time and energy demonizing each other and fomenting violence among their followers. The urgent needs of society get short shrift and the common citizen is very weary of this kind of democracy.

The American model might be better, but it is hardly inspiring. There is much lamentation about polarization between red and blue states, between Republicans and Democrats, but little is actually done to heal the rift. There are a lot of patriotic speeches but they amount to what eastern sages call, “all fireworks and no light.”

There are very few models of honest friendship and collaboration on the national level between Democrats and Republicans that can guide or inspire the Main Street citizen. It is time, however, to stop complaining. Let us transform the cliché “We are the ones we have been waiting for” into a real happening. I, as a citizen, can take action right now. I can make a difference.

As a “progressive” and a Democrat, I like to consider myself open minded, but I must admit that I have very few Republican friends. This exclusiveness on my part, I realize, contributes to the wounds of polarization. I simply have to reach out and connect to Republicans in my community. Maybe I can start with one or two, truly aspiring to understand their political point of view. It is incumbent on me to apply the “three cups of tea” approach to the “other”—to listen, respect, and connect. Undoubtedly, this will diminish stereotyping and unleash creative energies of healing, reconciliation, and higher understanding.

My parents taught me that life, whether in the realm of religion, politics, or culture, is a spiritual quest. The ultimate insight, embodied in all wisdom traditions, is the following: “Whoever’s approval you seek, you are their prisoner.” Since it is human nature to seek approval and we all do it, the follow-up insight is powerful: “Choose your jailors with care and deliberation.” May we all choose something higher than our tribal affiliation as our source of approval; let us choose, instead, the universal values of compassion, love, truth, justice, and community.

 


The State of Polarization

Rabbi Ted Falcon, founder, Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue

Jamal Rahman is one of the three Interfaith Amigos, who blog at yesmagazine.org

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side—a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. I'm speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn't be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.

Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

I watched the State of the Union with friends who have a large high-definition television—brilliant colors, sharp picture, full sound. In many ways, I felt like I was “there,” witnessing the first such address by the first African-American president of our country. And I was there, caught up in a paradox of polarization.

This morning, I heard a Democratic commentator say that she was distressed that the President did not come down harder on Republican roadblocks to any meaningful reform. Then I heard a Republican commentator lamenting that Obama simply increased the degree of conflict between the parties by his deep criticism of Republican positions. As I listened to these commentators, I wondered, “Who is right?”

The answer, of course, is obvious: they are both right. Rightness is determined more by the subjective response of the listener than by any objective exegesis (were such a thing truly possible) of the speech itself. From my vantage point, it appeared that the response was determined long before the speech was revealed. Stage right: mostly supporters of the President. Stage left: those opposed. That’s where it began and that’s where it ended. No naysayer was to be moved by content or intention.

What impressed me was the apparent unity within the Republican Party. They sat or they stood as if on cue from their leader. Their faces reflected scorn for their President and his message. Republican unity is striking, particularly when the dominant Democrats do not exhibit that kind of single-mindedness. There are more liberal and more conservative members of the Democratic majority; the Republicans seem of one voice.

At its best, polarization brings the kind of conflict that can help us all awaken to new visions supporting healing and wholeness. At its worst, polarization simply breeds sustained oppositional conflict refusing resolution and evolution. Polarization is a consequence of incarnation—we live in a world where all light casts shadow—we know the world through opposites, and without those opposites, we cannot navigate.

But polarization is a characteristic of ego-reality, and even though eg0-reality is required for us all, it is not the only reality available to us. This is the real rub: polarization in the service of polarization, conflict in the service of conflict, opposition in the service of opposition.

Real conversation must acknowledge this ego-trap, yet must transcend it.

Spiritual awareness includes both sides of any polarization, knows that opposition is a necessary part of evolution, and seeks to engage a deeper dialogue. This is no longer a dialogue determined to discover who is “right” and who is “wrong,” since both sides in any conflict have their truths. This is the conversation that begins to focus on the outcome we desire rather than seeking proof of either side’s superiority.

The greater conversation allows all of us to be heard, and encourages us to grapple with the outcomes we desire, not simply for our Party and our own interests, but for the people of this country.

 

Good Politics, Bad Economics

John Feffer, co-director, Foreign Policy in Focus

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work. We've already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we'll extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, for investment fund managers, and for those making over $250,000 a year. We just can't afford it.

President Obama’s focus on the economy in his State of the Union address was a no-brainer. Pocketbook issues are consistently the top concern for citizens and—in an election year—voters. The Republicans and the tea partiers on the far Right have capitalized on the high unemployment rate and the administration’s bankers-go-first approach to the economic crisis. Even if Massachusetts hadn’t happened, the president would no doubt have focused like a laser beam on the topic foremost in people’s minds.

Last night, Obama rightly reminded his audience of the difficult burdens he inherited on taking office. He sounded a few populist notes by comparing the bank bailout to a root canal and stressing his record of tax cuts. He didn’t shy away from the kind of industrial policy that Germany—and, gasp!—China have used to pull themselves out of recession through investments in education, health care, and infrastructure. And, finally, he put his jobs bill front and center.

This was all good politics. But it was bad economics.

After all, the president can’t freeze government spending and yet continue to focus on his domestic priorities—health care, a jobs bill—without prying open the Pentagon lockbox. The president’s proposed fiscal freeze exempts all national security budget items. If we’re asking the bankers to pay their fair share, why aren’t we asking the Pentagon officials and defense contractors to do the same?

We currently spend over $800 billion a year on the military (including supplemental spending and Department of Energy nuclear programs). Obama’s first budget included a couple percentage points of increase.

Saving the U.S. economy is not a simple matter of freezing U.S. military spending or reducing it by a few billion dollars. We must fundamentally reorient how the United States engages the world. At the moment, we spend over $200 billion a year to maintain our overseas military presence of bases, aircraft carriers, and the like. In addition to the considerable backlash such a military presence has created—in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia—this global garrison is simply unsustainable from an economic standpoint.

The president talked of troop withdrawals. “This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home,” he said of the war in Iraq. Only when a president makes this announcement global will we be able, as a country, to truly focus on rebuilding our economy and finance the shift to sustainability that will save the planet.

 

Peace, Reconciliation, and Debt in the President's Speech

Robert Naiman, national coordinator, Just Foreign Policy

And in Afghanistan, we're increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans—men and women alike. We're joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August. We will support the Iraqi government—we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and we will continue to partner with the Iraqi people to promote regional peace and prosperity. But make no mistake: This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home.

A speech is just words, but when the prospects for urgently needed reforms are so constrained by corporate domination of the means of communication, an annual speech to the nation by a president who claims the mantle of progressive leadership is a key opportunity.

Of course the president was going to focus on domestic policy. But the president also addressed foreign policy, and while he said some good things, he missed key opportunities to say better things. In particular, he missed the opportunity to promote reconciliation as an essential way of ending our wars and promoting peace. In speaking about U.S. domestic politics, the president is eloquent in his efforts to promote reconciliation, but he seems to have lost his voice in applying these same ideas to our foreign policy.

The president renewed his promise to end the war in Iraq, including his promise to have all U.S. combat troops out by August. He also said we will support the Iraqi government as they hold elections, and partner with Iraqis to promote peace and prosperity. But there was a key omission here: the word "reconciliation." Hundreds of candidates have been disqualified from running in the March parliamentary election; Sunni and secular candidates have been particularly targeted. If this move is allowed to stand, reconciliation in Iraq will be imperiled, the civil war could be reignited, and Iraq's relationship with its predominantly Sunni Arab neighbors would be further strained. The U.S. is working to overturn the exclusion; by referring more explicitly to those efforts, the president could have promoted Iraqi reconciliation.

The president also renewed his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. But here again the president missed an opportunity to speak about reconciliation. It is virtually certain that there is no way for the president to meaningfully begin ending the war in Afghanistan by July 2011 unless there is a negotiated political settlement with the Afghan Taliban, and the Administration has begun to take the first meaningful steps in that direction.

This week—at the prodding of the United States—a U.N. Security Council committee announced it had lifted sanctions against five former Taliban officials, bolstering efforts to pursue peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Administration officials say they are considering outreach to leaders of the Taliban; Vice-President Biden is said to be supportive. If the president had referred in his speech to the all-important issue of "reconciliation," it would have sent a signal to people in Afghanistan that the U.S. has opened the door to a political settlement, thereby bringing such a settlement closer.

To Iran, his message was that Iran is "more isolated" and that Iran's leaders would face "growing consequences" as they "continue to ignore their obligations." That, of course, refers to more sanctions, which the Administration knows very well have not resolved issues between Iran and the United States in the past and are very unlikely to resolve them in the future. Missing from the president's speech was any reference to his promise of diplomatic engagement with Iran. The Administration knows that at best sanctions will facilitate a negotiated political agreement with Iran, and such an agreement will be more likely if he continues to emphasize U.S. diplomatic engagement.

On Haiti, President Obama invoked the response of Americans to the earthquake to underscore America's commitment to development and reconstruction. But here he missed the opportunity to talk about canceling Haiti's $1 billion external debt—half of which is claimed by the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank—which as the president knows, is a precondition of a meaningful plan to reconstruct Haiti. The president embraced debt cancellation in his speech—in talking about student loans. This worthy principle should be applied internationally.

The President's proposal to freeze domestic spending while leaving military spending intact is more evidence that failure to downsize the empire will undermine efforts at domestic reform. Hopefully, in the year to come, those demanding domestic reform will increasingly raise their voices against our endless wars.

 

Victory for Clean Energy

Alisa Gravitz, executive director, Green America

I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing—even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future—because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

After eight years of an administration firmly committed to the best interests of the oil industry, it was a real step forward to listen to a State of the Union address repeatedly promising the pursuit of clean energy.

“We should put more Americans to work building clean energy facilities,” the president said, declaring that “the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

Green America wholeheartedly agrees! Creating jobs, and leading the world in finding new energy solutions aren’t partisan goals; we have a real opportunity now for red America and blue America to come together as a green America.

Unfortunately, the president then went on to endorse a list of unsustainable energy technologies and call them “clean.” While neglecting wind energy entirely, Obama gave solar power and energy-efficiency technologies only passing reference, and then called for the next generation of nuclear power plants, endorsed so-called clean coal, and called for offshore oil drilling—none of which can be called clean.

We need truly clean energy—in the form of solar, wind, and energy-efficiency—and in keeping with the theme of fiscal responsibility woven consistently through the president’s speech, Green America has a proven plan to pay for it. President Obama called for new energy plans to create new jobs, position our nation competitively in the global economy, and not contribute to the budget deficit.

Green America’s proposal meets all three goals. We propose Clean Energy Victory Bonds—modeled on the Victory Bonds sold during World War II—enabling all of us to come together to finance our own clean-energy future. Anyone with a savings account would be able to help put new renewable projects on the ground, by investing just $25 to $1000. A staggering 65 percent of all households supported the WWII Victory bonds, generating nearly $2 trillion (in today’s dollars).

The energy crisis we face as a nation is just as serious as the war crisis was for our parents and grandparents. Clean Energy Victory Bonds would help us solve this crisis by democratizing the financing of clean energy technologies and allowing Americans to invest in the future of their own country. President Obama spoke of a “trust deficit” in addition to a budget deficit in America; the Victory Bonds create a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for building our country’s future together.

By pursuing cleaner energy, we also build a shared future of enhanced community and environmental health, we seriously begin to tackle the climate crisis, and we invest in new clean-energy jobs that can’t be outsourced. In 2009, the Center for American Progress estimated that an investment of $150 billion in clean energy could create as many as 1.7 million competitively paying green jobs in the United States. We estimate that the sale of Victory Bonds could free up at least that much of an investment to fund the production of truly innovative energy technologies.

If we start by being honest about what is “clean” energy and what is not, we can succeed with Clean Energy Victory Bonds. We call on President Obama and Congress to establish such a program in keeping with the theme of fiscal responsibility outlined in his speech.

 

The Coal State of the Union

Jeff Biggers, author, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

While President Obama addressed the U.S. Congress, our nation sat back and burned an estimated 115,000 tons of coal. Close to 250,000 tons of CO2 were released from coal-fired plants during the hour-long presentation; hundreds of pounds of toxic mercury emissions entered our air, and inevitably, into the lives of our children.

As we watched the President on our televisions and computer screens generated by coal-fired electricity, arsenic from coal ash, along with boron, selenium and lead, quietly seeped into our watersheds. Drawing from American Lung Association estimates, three American citizens died prematurely during the State of the Union due to illnesses related to coal-fired plant pollution; three coal miners also died today from black lung disease. Millions of tax dollars were allocated in this single hour to cover the external health care and environmental costs of coal.

And the deadly myth of the Saudi Arabia of coal burned on—our president continued to cling to the train-wreck offense of "clean coal" rhetoric.

I admire the President's commitment to tackling climate change legislation, and I applauded the President's indisputable support for clean energy investment in his address tonight—wind power surged 39 percent last year, thanks largely to stimulus spending. However, one lingering truth burned: The historic burden of coal on our nation will continue with its unremitting human rights and environmental violations until President Obama declares an end to coal, as we know it.

End coal now? Of course not. Roughly 42-45 percent of our nation's electricity comes from coal-fired plants—including the Pepso grid and four power plants in the Washington, D.C. area, which run on coal stripmined from mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia.

But, until we rank the ignominious history of the coal industry alongside the machinations of the tobacco industry, and commit to a roadmap of withdrawal from our deadly addiction, any meaningful progress for a sustainable energy policy will be blindsided.

Ever since President Obama first visited my native region of southern Illinois in 1997 as a young legislator from Chicago, he has embraced the myth of the Saudi Arabia of Coal—where coal remains the merciless king, and the land and its residents defend themselves against the daily onslaught of the monarch's extraction for more wealth.

In truth, the coal industry in Illinois, the Saudi Arabia of coal, peaked in 1918, and while little spurts of demand took place during the Second World War, the mines have never altered from its downward slope of boom-bust mayhem. Over 100,000 miners produced more than 100 million tons in the early 1920s; a little more than 3,000 miners barely churn out 30 million tons today.

By the 1930s, absentee coal companies had abandoned the region and left a picture of "almost unrelieved, utter economic devastation," according to one government study. As one of the most depressed and vulnerable places in the country, the southern Illinois coalfields had been given over to "hopeless poverty."

Still today, our region—like all coalfield areas in Appalachia and the West—has been relegated to the vassal status of a supply-and-demand extraction colony subject to the whims of Big Coal—a lobby that the President continues to coddle.

Tonight, the president committed himself again to making the United States the world leader in clean energy.

And yet, every day (and energy tax dollar) we expend mitigating the colossal external costs of coal, or building the new bridge to nowhere known as carbon capture and storage technologies —which every single energy expert agrees will increase coal production—we take a step backwards into the darkest chapter of our dirty energy history.

 

The End of Nuclear Weapons

Joseph Cirincione, president, Ploughshares Fund

Now, even as we prosecute two wars, we're also confronting perhaps the greatest danger to the American people—the threat of nuclear weapons. I've embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them. To reduce our stockpiles and launchers, while ensuring our deterrent, the United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades. And at April's Nuclear Security Summit, we will bring 44 nations together here in Washington, D.C. behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.

In an address dominated by domestic and economic issues, President Barack Obama made a forceful case for a step-by-step approach to preventing nuclear terrorism, preventing new states from getting nuclear weapons, and for dramatically reducing the stockpiles of 23,000 weapons in the world today.

Obama called nuclear weapons “the greatest danger to the American people today.” He is not alone. A growing bipartisan consensus is building among military leaders, national security experts, and others for a comprehensive plan.

"Over the long term, we need to be heading towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons. And over the short term we need to be taking steps to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons ... could be used,” says former Secretary of Defense William Perry. “This is such an important problem in my mind, that it dwarfs all other considerations, and I have, myself, decided to devote the balance of my career to working to achieve that goal.”

Last week in The Wall Street Journal, Perry was joined by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, in their third joint op-ed pledging their support for “a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world.”

This begins, as Obama noted, with Senate approval of a new treaty to reduce the U.S. and Russian arsenals, which together account for 96 percent of global totals. Obama expects to conclude such a treaty with the Russians in the next few weeks.

It also means getting the cooperation of key nations to secure and eliminate nuclear weapon materials before terrorists can steal or buy them. The president will convene a Global Nuclear Security Summit in April in Washington, where, he said, “we will bring forty-four nations together behind a clear goal: securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.”

This global cooperation can and has isolated North Korea and Iran, and it has increased the pressure on them to end their nuclear programs. Obama’s approach has also allowed a strong internal opposition to emerge inside Iran, increasing the chances of genuine regime change after years of Iran’s lockstep march towards nuclear weapons capability.

Obama said, “I have embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons, and seeks a world without them.” His task now is to mobilize the majority support for this 21st Century security strategy to overcome those still clinging to nuclear weapons and outmoded Cold War theories. It may be the most important fight he has this year.


The Way to Nuclear Disarmament

Stephen Zunes, professor and chair, Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of San Francisco

Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons. That's why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions –- sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That's why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.

It was encouraging both that President Obama recognized the ongoing threat of nuclear proliferation and that he did not explicitly threaten military force against North Korea and Iran. Also to his credit, Obama acknowledged the importance of the two largest nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—completing negotiations on a far-reaching arms control treaty as part of “a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons and seeks a world without them.” This, however, is a long-overdue legal obligation of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires the existing nuclear weapons states to make good-faith efforts to pursue complete nuclear disarmament, something which even such Cold War hawks as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn have acknowledged as necessary. It will be hard to convince Iran and North Korea to live by their NPT obligations as long as the United States and the other major nuclear powers fail to do so as well.

President Obama talked of strengthened sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program, adding—to enthusiastic bipartisan applause—that “as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.”

While it is certainly true that North Korea and Iran are in defiance of demands by the U.N. Security Council regarding their nuclear program, Israel, India, and Pakistan are also in defiance. Because they are U.S. allies, however, the Obama administration has shown little inclination to impose or even threaten sanctions against these countries, which are not only engaged in far more advanced nuclear reprocessing, but—unlike the Iranians—actually possess nuclear weapons. U.N. Security Council resolution 487 calls on Israel to turn its nuclear facilities over to the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency, while Pakistan and India remain in defiance of UNSC resolution 1172, calling on them to eliminate their nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missiles altogether—yet Obama has not promised, or even hinted, that they “will face growing consequences.” Indeed, the Obama administration is continuing his predecessor’s practices of providing all three countries with nuclear-capable aircraft and other delivery systems, as well as directly facilitating India’s nuclear program.

Historically, every successful non-proliferation effort has been based on principles of universal law, such as the establishment of nuclear weapons-free zones (NWFZs). NWFZs already exist for Latin America, Africa, Antarctica, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. Until now, however, the U.S. has opposed the establishment of NWFZs in Southwest Asia or East Asia, which would not only require that U.S. allies disarm, but also prohibit the United States from bringing tactical nuclear weapons into the region on planes and ships. The kind of nuclear apartheid currently demanded by the United States simply will not work, since any effort at imposing a regime of haves and have-nots just leads the have-nots to try even harder.

Similarly, it will be impossible to control the threatened spread of nuclear weapons as long as nuclear power remains a preferred source of energy. Obama’s oxymoronic call for taxpayer-funded incentives for the construction of “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” will make non-proliferation efforts all the more difficult.

To address the very real threat of nuclear proliferation, then, the Obama administration needs to get serious about America’s own obligations to disarm its nuclear arsenal, support the establishment of nuclear weapons free zones, and seek alternative sources of energy.

 

We Can Begin the World Anew

Pastor Don Mackenzie, retired pastor, University Congregational Church of Christ

Don Mackenzie is one of the three Interfaith Amigos, who blog at yesmagazine.org

The spirit that has sustained this nation for more than two centuries lives on in you, its people. We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment—to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.

During the portion of the speech focusing on the need for improvements in education, the president used the word "innovation" in relation to the need for improvements in science and math. Doubtless this is true. But speaking as a religious leader, I would say that the greater need, when it comes to innovation, is under the heading, “understanding the positive uses of differences.” 

Author J.K. Rowling, in her 2008 Harvard commencement address, said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to imagine that which is not, and therefore the fount of all innovation and invention. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

In order to lead us to a place from which, through imagination and conviction, we can create possibilities for working together toward all the goals the president outlined, we need leadership that will help us to see differences as potentials for growth, innovation, and contributing to the common good rather than as reasons for violence, fear, and hatred. This is especially true regarding religion, which has a history of dividing us rather than helping to heal us. What could move us to hope that such leadership could actually happen?

Underneath the spirit that founded this country, the spirit that something new could be created that would have a broad benefit to humankind, there was a tightly held religious truth: that redemption is possible. David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, wrote about fictions in presidential campaigns and specifically in Barack Obama’s campaign. “The third fiction,” he wrote, “was that we can begin the world anew.”

I disagree. It is not a fiction, but it does depend on what we believe. The idea that we can begin anew lies at the absolute heart of every great religious tradition. It gives meaning and hope to life and carries us through difficult times—times such as ours.

Barack Obama believes in the possibility for starting over. He has said so repeatedly. But the innovation required to do so should not be limited to tangible things like the economy, science and math, or health care. Our imaginations need to be valued by our culture, nurtured by our teachers, and put to use in feeling the essential oneness of humanity—so that we may act accordingly. Should that happen, we would be better able to build a new economy, a more effective and inclusive health care system, and to make effective use of science and math—all uses that support the diversity which defines our oneness.

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