Being in the House chamber during a State of the Union address, rowdy and packed with the entire federal government, is often compared to being at a high school pep rally. Despite this year’s mixed-seating arrangement — designed to restrain the usual “rival football teams” show of cheers and grumbles from opposite sides of the aisle — the scene at President Obama’s speech on Tuesday still reflected two sides reacting very differently to his rallying call.
Taking on the optimistic theme of “Winning the Future,” the president steered clear of an exhaustive list of every last policy matter he wants to tackle. Although he briefly touched on a range of priorities, including a defense of health care reform and the DREAM Act, the primary focus was laying out his broad vision for the country: America needs to get globally competitive, fast, and that’s going to take more than Republican-backed spending cuts. If we’re to create jobs moving forward, we need to meet the demands of a new age by investing in education, innovation and infrastructure.
“The rules have changed,” Obama said, explaining that the days of finding a good factory job without a college degree are over. “In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business.”
With countries like China and India ahead of the curve, far outpacing America in education and new technologies, Obama explained his plan for not only catching up to but also outperforming the rest of the world.
The president’s first speech before a joint session of the new Congress, now comprising a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Senate with six new GOP seats, came at a critical juncture. Almost two years after the passage of the Recovery Act, the national unemployment rate has stalled at about 9 percent, while the jobless rate for African Americans has climbed significantly higher, to nearly 16 percent. In the face of Obama’s repeated insistence that robust economic recovery will take time, millions of out-of-work Americans are increasingly losing patience.
“I think the president was a stalwart commander in chief tonight,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who was encouraged by Obama’s message. “He essentially told America that, despite the challenges of the past two years, we’re on our way back up now and walking into a new door of opportunity.”
These opportunities, as portrayed by Obama, must come from spending in innovation. “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology,” he said of his vision for boosting research and development in his federal budget, which moves to Congress in a few weeks.
Specifically, Obama said he wants the nation to break its dependence on oil with biofuels, and lead the world in electric vehicles on the road — 1 million by 2015. He challenged Congress to help him reach his goal of 80 percent of America’s electricity coming from clean energy sources by 2035. Within 25 years, he wants 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail. On education, particularly making higher education more affordable, he asked lawmakers to permanently extend the tuition tax credit worth $10,000 for four years of college.
Pleased as Cleaver was by this discussion of the future, he expressed concern about the possibility that African Americans could be shut out. “If we’re successful in approving a transportation bill, for example, we’ve got to take great care to have legislation designed that will require minority participation,” he said.