Barack Obama gives his State of the Union speech. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
If the great debate in America in the years after the great recession has been between austerity and growth, on Tuesday night President Obama shifted it back to where it must be—to jobs and growth—if our fragile recovery is to be sustained.
With 20 million Americans in need of full-time work, the president was right to issue the Kennedy-esque call, “It is our generation’s task…to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth—a rising, thriving middle class.” But, left unanswered was how this White House or Congress plans to create jobs at the scale demanded? With single women, minorities and the young faring the worst, with wages sinking and with the top 1 percent capturing fully 93 percent of the nation’s income growth coming out of the Great Recession in 2010, how do we reset our course and compass and find “the North Star” the president spoke of? There was talk of a twenty-first-century WPA—a “Fix-it-First” program to put people to work on urgent repairs, like the 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across America and the floating of a long-discussed idea of a private-public Development Bank. But while Obama was clear that “deficit reduction is not an economic plan,” he also showed an unwillingness to boldly ignore deficit hawks (see Simpson-Bowles).
But what captures our attention and imagination on the morning after are the president’s humane initiatives, the ones millions have organized for. There was Obama’s rousing call to raise the minimum wage and indexing it to rise automatically each year with the cost of living: “Tonight, let’s declare that In the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.” (He mentioned the poor and poverty seven times.) His call for universal pre-school and pre-K and cost controls on higher education. His urging that Congress pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. His singling out of the overdue renewal of a strengthened Violence Against Women Act. His honoring of the 102-year-old Desilene Victor who waited six hours to vote last November, and with it a vow and a plan to fix our flawed voting systems. His determined, spirited, though oddly vague words about immigration reform.
And then for the first time in ten years in a SOTU speech there came the remarkably emotional mention of gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama called out to those assembled in the hall. The families of Newtown and Aurora, Gabby Giffords, the children of his hometown Chicago and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old majorette who marched in his inaugural parade and was gunned down last month. (Her parents of were seated next to the first lady.)