Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The State of Our Union

President Obama gave his first State of the Union Speech and I was very pleased at some of the issues he addressed. The following is some of my favorite portions:

I'll start with what I thought was the best, first:
"People are out of work. They're hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay.

"But -- but the truth is, these steps won't make up for the 7 million jobs that we've lost over the last two years. The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long- term economic growth and finally address the problems that America's families have confronted for years.

"We can't afford another so-called economic "expansion" like the one from last decade, what some call the "lost decade," where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion, where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs, where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation.

"From the day I took office, I've been told that addressing our larger challenges is too ambitious, such effort would be too contentious. I've been told that our political system is too gridlocked and that we should just put things on hold for a while.

"For those who make these claims, I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? You see...

"You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy; Germany's not waiting; India's not waiting.

"These nations, they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

"Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America."

Only time will tell if The President will hold firm to this commitment, whether the Democrats in Congress will push this agenda, and whether the Republicans will work with them or stand in the way. . .

{The other highlights are in order of appearance}

"no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investments in clean energy in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide, helping to make advanced batteries, or in the California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels.

"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."

This was important as it addressed pet issues among both liberals and conservatives. I appreciated that Mr. Obama is supportive of utilizing more nuclear power in this country. Without continuing down the path of more coal-fired power plants, with technologies that are available now and likely to be available and viable for at least the next generation, perhaps two, the nation's growing needs in energy cannot be met without building more nuclear power plants.

Clean coal might be interesting, once it's been invented. But we still need to move away from coal as it is a finite resource that we increasingly must scar the Earth, leveling mountains to get access to, and so far there is no way to substantially reduce the carbon burning coal emits.

Mr. Obama didn't forget about health-care:
"Now, let's clear a few things up.

"I didn't choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.

"I took on health care because of the stories I've heard, from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage, patients who've been denied coverage, families, even those with insurance, who are just one illness away from financial ruin."

While this portion might seem superfluous, it actually stood out to me as revealing a somewhat obvious reality that is overlooked by so many conservatives and Republicans who oppose substantive health-care reform. So often President Obama's desire to reform our health-care system is dismissed by right-wingers as being motivated by dubious, if not nefarious goals.

While having passed a major health-care reform bill would be a legislative victory under President Obama's belt, this was by far the most difficult issue to take on; the most unlikely to succeed. Politically, it was most definitely not a shrewd move. That isn't simply obvious now, as The President suggested, this has been obvious all along. While even I didn't anticipate it would turn into the fiasco it did, still, the political capital that would have to be expended to pass health-care reform was destined to be enormous, and anyone that knows anything about politics knew this a year ago.

So what has motivated Mr. Obama about passing health-care reform? These days everyone is a cynic. But I think he really does believe it is critical to our economy. I also think he really does believe there is an imperative need among millions of Americans to have a better system than we have now, and it is the just thing to do to provide it.

A few of the health-care details:
"After nearly a century of trying -- Democratic administrations, Republican administrations -- we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans.

"The approach we've taken would protect every American from the worst practices of the insurance industry. It would give small businesses and uninsured Americans a chance to choose an affordable health care plan in a competitive market.

"It would require every insurance plan to cover preventive care. And by the way, I want to acknowledge our first lady, Michelle Obama, who this year is creating a national movement to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity and make kids healthier.
[...]
"Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses.

"And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress, our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.

"Still, this is a complex issue. And the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, this process left most Americans wondering, "What's in it for me?"

"But I also know this problem is not going away. By the time I'm finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year. Our deficit will grow. Premiums will go up. Patients will be denied the care they need. Small-business owners will continue to drop coverage altogether.

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber."
[...]
"Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform, not now, not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done."

And a reality that Republicans didn't care for all too well, considering most of it happened on their watch, by their actions, but a reality none the less:

"let me start the discussion of government spending by setting the record straight. At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion.

"By -- by the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program.

"On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door."

I, like many conservatives, was glad to see attention given to the debt burden and promises of efforts to rein in spending:
"families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.
"So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the $1 trillion that it took to rescue the economy last year.

"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."

Mr. Obama exercises the power of The Presidency:
"I've called for a bipartisan Fiscal Commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad.

"This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline.

"Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans."

"we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust, deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.

"To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve."

"That's what I came to Washington to do."

And that is part of why we elected you, Mr. President. Transparency would be nice, we're still waiting for this...

I was very pleased that The President brought up the recent give-away to corporate interests by the Supreme Court:
"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.

I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.

I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform, Democrats and Republicans."

This cannot be overstated. I don't think we can even imagine just how far-reaching the effect this is going to have on our political system across the board. I noticed that when President Obama made his remark, Justice Samuel Alito quite visibly shook his head and mouthed something. I couldn't tell what. The other Justices sat there much more stoically, like they're supposed to do.


Addressing partisanship:
"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.

"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.

"The confirmation of... I'm speaking of 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."

Here, here!

More blunt language on partisanship:
"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

"And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, a supermajority, then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

The Hate Crimes bill that passed, adding sexual orientation to the 1969 Federal Hate Crimes Act got a mention, as did repealing 'Don't ask; Don't tell':
"We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.

"This year -- this year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do.

Sounds like a promise to me. It's about damn time. I expect it. This year. This injustice has gone on far too long.

People can write this off as total bullshit, but it's true:
"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."

"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."

The Republican response this time around included a slightly more official-looking venue (almost Presidential) — the House Chamber in the Capital of Virginia. The speech was delivered by the newly elected Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who gave the speech in front of a mixed audience of public officials, military personnel and civilians to provide partisan applause. The whole thing was such an obvious theatrical manuver.

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