State of the Union Reaction

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for my thoughts on the State of the Union, just like we were all on pins and needles for Joni Ernst’s response speech last night. Unlike hers, this will actually engage some (though not all) of the content from Obama’s address.

You can find video and a full transcript of the State of the Union here. For other good analysis, check out Democracy Now!’s episode discussing the speech.

Economic Policy

I think this was hands-down the strongest part of the speech last night. Obama touched on a number of concrete, specific policy goals that for the most part were very positive. Highlights included: the goal of closing the wage gap; providing cheaper, higher quality childcare; providing free community college; closing several tax loopholes; paid sick leave; and granting tax breaks for the middle class while raising taxes on the wealthiest.

However, there is one point where I think Obama could have improved here: corporate tax rates. He only mentioned corporations once in the entire speech, saying that we should close loopholes that let them dodge American taxes. $150 billion is lost every year due to corporate tax evasion, and average taxpayers pay over $1,000 more each to make up for that lost revenue. That is a huge amount of lost revenue that deserved more than a passing mention.

Most of these proposals would actually just bring the U.S. into alignment with the rest of the industrialized world (or at least, closer into alignment.) They are for the most part modest. I think one reason that these proposals might seem almost radical to some is that debate in the U.S. has shifted so far to the right: as the GOP gets more extreme, more moderate or centrist Republicans begin to feel alienated. As a result, instead of also trying to move left to appeal to their base, Democrats have moved rightward in their policies to try to pick up those alienated former Republicans. As a result, pretty modest, center-left goals start to sound far-left.

Foreign Policy

This section is much more of a mixed bag.

First, the good: Obama pledged to continue to improve relations with Cuba and asked Congress to end the embargo, finally acknowledging that yes, the Cold War is over. He also pledged to veto any new sanctions against Iran, claiming that new sanctions “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.”

His call for bipartisan efforts to improve cybersecurity was basically too vague for me to have formed comments on, so I’ll leave that alone for now. Ditto for his comments about Ebola: yes, Mr. President, we do need a more effective global effort to deal with potential future pandemics. What would that look like?

The president’s message on ISIL was muddled. First, he spoke proudly of how American leadership and military power was stopping ISIL’s advance. Then, a paragraph later, he asked for Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to…stop ISIL’s advance? (Also, as it turns out, ISIL’s idea of law and order is not that different from major American ally Saudi Arabia, a fact that was not mentioned.)

“American Values”

This was by far the weakest part of the speech.

Obama started by proudly proclaiming that he had prohibited torture. While that is indeed something to be proud of, it misses an important point: he maintained the extraordinary rendition program, which just outsources torture to American allies. So maybe Americans are no longer the ones dirtying their hands, but our government continues to encourage, sponsor and bear responsibility for torture by other governments.

So the claim about torture is a stretch. What Obama said next was an outright lie: “[I’ve] worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.” I’ve written about this before (here, here and here, for starters), and the truth is that there are essentially no constraints on the use of drones. There is a complete lack of transparency in the process, a number of important lingering questions regarding the legality of how we use drones, and significant evidence that their use kills an inordinate number of civilians and serves mostly to incite more rage against the United States. Our drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target they hit, and in Pakistan alone, 24 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times, and missed strikes targeting these men killed 874 people, including 142 children. Furthermore, despite his boasting last night, Obama has never implemented drone reforms that he previously promised.

Obama reiterated his commitment to close Guantanamo, which at this point I will believe when it happens. Likewise to his pretty words about working with the NSA to protect privacy.

He ended by trying to recapture some of his soaring rhetoric from before his presidency, when he said that “there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America.” The trouble is, especially in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others, and the lack of consequences for the officers responsible, that rhetoric falls flat. There is a white America and a black America; for the former, the police are a bulwark against impending chaos, soldiers on the front line against criminality and destruction. For the latter, they are a hostile occupying force that can murder children with complete impunity. Blacks and whites live a different reality in the United States, and to try to paper that over with declarations of unity to me felt like an insult to the fallen, not a promise of progress. They deserved better.


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