Speech low on ambition, heavy on ambiguity

President’s call for “breakthrough year” is bracketed by modest proposals

On January 30, 2014

A reserved tone and avoidance of hard issues overshadowed the evening.

In his fifth State of the Union, President Obama presented a series of uninspired proposals to a divided Congress, beginning with a list of the nation's meager improvements and concluding with a heartfelt anecdote. The president implored Congress to make this "a year of action" the same way a parent pleads with a child to just behave five more minutes in a grocery store.

This tone was warranted, as members of Congress have so far demonstrated that they cannot fulfill their most basic responsibilities.

Between the ornery Tea Party whining for corporate tax cuts, Democrats sitting with arms folded while blaming others for the nation's problems and everyone clamoring to posture ahead of what will be a contentious mid-term election, the president's weariness is understandable.

We should not pretend, however, that Obama has been the epitome of maturity, either this year or in this speech. The fact that only two of the 41 proposals he laid out in last year's speech were actually implemented (according to an NPR report) speaks to failings by both the president and the least productive Congressional session in this nation's history.

Worth considering are what those two approved proposals were: reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and passing a budget. The former reminds us that even the members of this government have, by and large, something resembling a human conscience. The latter, that they have eyes to read poll numbers.

Beyond the dismal record of the past year, the proposals in this State of the Union were far less ambitious than 2013, though it is easier to be optimistic following a hard-fought-for second election win than when approval ratings are near the lowest they have been in five years.

Somewhere between pandering to businesses and stumbling through a wonky description of the new public IRA initiative, the president seemed to forget to mention gun violence, gay rights and Edward Snowden. Paying no more than a fleeting reference to any of them, Obama punctuated the evening with threats of executive action to act when Congress refuses to. Never mind that this results in either miniscule change or outright unconstitutionality.

But take heed, our fellow Americans: this government might do something, yet.

When the speech did transcend its modest proposals, there were flashes of passion reminiscent of the president elected for promises of hope and change. For the fifth year came calls for immigration reform, a moving proclamation for women's equality in the workplace and an inspired call to address climate change.

"When our children's children look us in the eye and ask us if we did all we could ... I want us to say, 'yes we did,'" Obama said.

Our fear is simply this: that this government is not doing all it can. And if these issues are not being addressed by the president during the annual speech that is meant to set the agenda and tone in Washington for the year ahead, how can we expect them to be solved during the day-to-day minutia on Capitol Hill? What did this speech do to make us hopeful, to insight action and dedication to change?

It is worth noting that Obama did not end with the usual cliché, "the state of our union is strong." This is not to say our union is weak - it is certainly better than it was five years ago - but we are rapidly approaching a turning point.

We are pulling out of the worst of the recession, we are ending our longest war and equality has made gains unseen in decades. We are approaching the end of a recovery, so the time for real progress, true ambition and dedicated leadership is now.

"Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy," Obama said, quoting Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who narrowly survived a roadside bomb on his 10th tour in Afghanistan.

Given the year of inaction and tepid speech from our commander-in-chief preceding such a powerful truism, you would think the president did not find our freedom, and our democracy, worth anything.

The time to have a government worthy of serving soldiers like Remsburg, and the multitude of everyday heroes across this nation, is now.


email: editorial@ubspectrum.com

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