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The SOTU Speech We Could Have Heard

Obama’s speech addressed progressive issues such as jobs, women’s rights, and clean energy. But it left the need for a larger economic transformation untouched.

Capitol Building

Photo by Shutterstock.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama deftly nudged the national debate further away from the dominant austerity framework that brought us the misguided budget deal that Congress passed on New Year’s Day.

He also brought much-needed attention to the critical shortage of good middle-class jobs by eloquently calling the need to create more of them. He called this effort the “North Star that guides our efforts.”

But, did Obama offer a convincing vision for how to do this? Not quite.

First, he missed a beautiful opportunity to connect the jobs and inequality crises with the climate crisis , all of which can be solved with the same solution: a bold, transformative “new jobs” agenda. This approach would move government incentives and resources away from fossil fuels and poorly paid jobs and toward a vibrant, caring, green economy and quality jobs.

Imagine the stir he’d make if he declared it was time to move from an economy dominated by Wall Street, Lockheed Martin, and Walmart to a Main Street economy. Or if he promised to block the Keystone XL Pipeline and crack down on the dangerous practice of natural gas fracking as part of an effort to wean our country off fossil fuels.

Main Street embraces everything from clean energy to high-speed rail, from energy-efficient buildings to composting and recycling. Moving toward a Main Street economy means making sure that fast-growing sectors like elder care are upgraded from Walmart poverty jobs to ones that pay a living wage.

Yes, Obama highlighted the challenge of climate change and mentioned clean energy. He called for a higher minimum wage and stronger education opportunities for all. But he failed to make a powerful call for a transformative economic agenda to replace our Wall Street and Walmart economy with a fundamentally new one rooted in ecology, equity, and democratic forms of ownership.

Obama could also have done a better job of reminding Americans that there would be abundant resources to invest in pressing needs if the wealthy, corporations, Wall Street, and polluters paid their fair share of taxes, and if we cut fossil fuel subsidies and the wasteful Pentagon budget.

Obama knows full well that he’s working with a gridlocked and largely dysfunctional Congress. But he did make a compelling appeal to lawmakers to take two major actions that could win in 2013: comprehensive immigration reform and real gun control. Both are long overdue and would make this country a better place. His salute to Desilene Victor, the 102-year-old Florida woman who became famous after a lengthy wait to vote last year, underscored concerns about the outrages of Republican efforts to suppress voting rights.

I also applaud him for urging the renewal of a strengthened Violence Against Women Act, acknowledging the excesses of CEO pay, and calling for a $15 billion construction jobs program.

But in the face of a Congress beholden to corporate interests, Obama could have made a better case for vital actions that his administration can take on its own. These include ending drone attacks, shuttering coal plants, using the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring basic labor rights for domestic workers, and pardoning prisoners who were unjustly sentenced. Of these, Obama mentioned only EPA actions to counter climate change.

Obama’s also clinging to a failed free trade policy. And he’s addicted to oil and gas, even as he embraces alternatives. His foreign policy vision is overly focused on fighting terrorism as opposed to fostering diplomacy.

Between his more powerful inauguration speech and this address, he’s begun to shift the national conversation toward things that matter to most people. But he’s got a long way to go before he embraces a game-changing agenda.


John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank celebrating its fiftieth year.

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