Obama Calls for Action Against the Backdrop of the “Do Nothing Congress”

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared this a ‘year of action’ through the exertion of his executive powers and a pronounced progressive agenda. Rebecca Thorning Wine looks at reactions of the Democrats, Republicans and U.S citizens to the US leader’s speech, for Pandeia. 

According to Article II, section 3 of the U.S constitution, the President of the United States is required to address Congress and “recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”, and does so annually. With midterm elections fast encroaching, President Obama used the State of the Union as a platform to appeal to American’s sense of civic duty and rally democrats around battling income inequality in hopes to maintain control of the Senate, which they are in jeopardy of losing.

Obama’s speech highlighted the success of his Presidency in creating eight million new jobs, drawing the 12-year war in Afghanistan to an end, and reaching the lowest unemployment rate in five years. He called out Congress for being tied up in the debate over what the size of government should be and declared that he would ‘act on his own’ when necessary.

“Mad Men” Policy Embarrassment

He presented broad pushes for immigration reform, patent reform, to ‘undo the damage congress has done’ in de-funding federally funded research, and breezed by campaign finance reform. One of the longer standing ovations came when he spoke about inequality in the workforce and that we should ‘do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode’, a quote that went viral, and was the most tweeted on twitter. Pointing out that in 2014, it is an embarrassment that women only make 77 cents to the man’s dollar.

He declared that ‘no one who works full time should have to live in poverty’, and applauded the five states that had managed to lift the minimum wage. Congress has fought him on this before, and a restless Obama stated that he would give an Executive Order to raise minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.

Many Republicans took to twitter to vent their frustrations, in particular Ohio Congressman Tim Huelskamp said, “1st Release of Obama speech reads like dictates from a King. All orders he will do to bypass Congress #LawLess”.

Health and Foreign Policy 

President Obama went on to discuss health care and emphasized that 3 million Americans have gained coverage under the Affordable Care act and the 9 million have signed up, as well as the fact that now no American can be dropped from their providers for a pre-existing condition or that women could be charged more for their health care just for being a woman.

As for foreign policy he reiterated the fact that ‘America must move off a permanent war footing’. UK press has praised this point but do not feel that it is viable until he repeals the open-ended 2001 authority that allows the US to wage war unrestricted by time and space. Obama asked, once again, for Congress to help him close the Guantanamo Bay prison, but left out any sort of follow-up plan.

‘Good But Modest’

Obama’s speech received mixed reviews from both sides of the aisle. Democrats believe that he missed yet another opportunity to admonish the GOP (which stands for “Grand Old Party”, a nickname for the Republican Party) for the government shut down, and for being one of the most unproductive Congresses in US history. Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders from Vermont felt that it was a ‘good but modest’ speech.

Along with many other progressives, Rep. Sanders felt that Obama should not have tip toed over the grave problems that the U.S. faces with income inequality and that he should have “made it clear to the American people that the ideology of the current Republican Party that dominates the house, and many senators as well, is way out of touch with where the American people want us to go”.

Republicans Respond

The GOP, too fractured to deliver one cohesive response, delivered four. The sanctioned Republican responses came from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and then an amended Spanish version delivered by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Rodgers emphasized her role as a mother by talking about her son with Down’s syndrome, subtly hinting at the fact that the GOP would not be budging on the ‘sacred’ right to life.

The unsanctioned Tea Party responses came from Utah Republican Rep. Mike Lee, and Kentucky Republican Rep. Rand Paul. Lee gave a summary of the events of the Boston Tea Party, and unabashedly scolded the Republican Party for being “just as out-of-touch as the Democratic establishment.” He also took a stab at the stem of the ‘immobility of the poor’ in the U.S, drawing the conclusion that it comes from them “being trapped in poverty by big government programs.”

While Rand Paul focused on what he perceives as the cause of the poverty of the ‘Great Recession’, claiming that it is due to the Federal Reserve keeping ‘interests rates to low for too long’, criticizing the government creation of new jobs, and stating that government spending doesn’t work. “It isn’t that government is inherently stupid, although it’s a debatable point, it’s that government doesn’t get the same signals.”

All in all, President’s Obama’s speech set a promising tone of action for the coming year. However the culmination of the Republican’s response, official or not, leaves little hope for immigration reform, campaign finance form, a substantive increase in minimum wage, or anything that could appear bi-partisan in the upcoming midterm elections.

Photograph: Flickr, Creative Commons by Steve Rhodes 


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