(The Root) — In his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and guaranteeing that preschool is provided to every child in America. He emphasized the right to vote without long lines, and the right to earn a decent living. He urged Congress to address gun violence — not just to stop mass shootings, but to stop inner-city violence like the shooting that killed 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton.
And African-American leaders liked what they heard. After the speech, The Root caught up with NAACP President Ben Jealous and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to get their take on the content of the president's message. Pleased, inspired and in some cases surprised by the bold content, these leaders — who aren't at all shy about expressing when they're unimpressed with Obama — gave the president high marks across the board. Here's why.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous: A
I give the president a solid A tonight. He took on the gun lobby; he called for us to end voter suppression. He stood up for the long-term unemployed and women in the armed forces. He made it clear that we must pass comprehensive immigration reform. That's a lot to take on … In one night. In one year. It speaks to this president's resolve. It speaks to his confidence and commitment to having a progressive and inclusive legacy for his presidency. Tonight, you saw the president's swag. We saw him step out there with the confidence of somebody who has won by a wide margin twice and who understands he has a mandate from the voters of this country to force this Congress to embrace commonsense reforms to this nation's most vexing problems.
Rep. Bobby Rush: A
He talked about poverty, and he talked about domestic violence and gun violence, and he really spoke as I expected him to speak on these issues. It was a very moving speech as it relates to issues we're struggling with in our communities … Also, he spoke about educational initiatives. He said every child in America should have a right to go to preschool. I give him an A. It is one of the better speeches I've heard him make.
Rep. Karen Bass: A+
[I give him] an A+ with high marks for mentioning poverty in America. I was particularly pleased with the president's call to increase the minimum wage.
Rep. Barbara Lee: A
He did not pull any punches. It was an inspiring speech that hit a lot of … policy initiatives that we've all been working on for years. I was very happy to hear him talk about the minimum wage and targeting resources to the hardest hit communities. He talked about a thriving middle class but also that those who are poor and low income should have a chance at the American dream.
Rep. Gregory Meeks: A
I give it an A. A big A. Maybe even an A+ because he was talking to average, everyday Americans. He talked about how every child needs to get an education so they can get a job; that if you're poor, that shouldn't prevent you from getting an education. He talked about bringing manufacturing back to America, ensuring that hard work would lead to a decent life. And he was balanced. He talked about cutting the deficit in a balanced way, not just on the backs of poor and middle class. I thought it was a strong speech for the middle class and a strong speech for America.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton: B+
I would give the president a B+, and let me tell you why. I thought the president's address on the overriding national issues was excellent, because he told the Republicans something they needed to hear — that he was through with spending cuts unless they did it by comprehensive tax reform … [and it] called them out because they continue to say that the deficit is driven by spending. So I was very pleased that he was bold about that, about climate change, and there was this really fresh new thing that he said: that every child must have access to preschool. That's big.
Here's where I was disappointed. The president put "No taxation without representation" on his cars, and we thought that was a signal that he was going to speak to the more than 600,000 mostly African-American residents who live in District of Columbia who don't have equal rights as other Americans, even though we pay taxes … I was particularly disappointed because he had pointed remarks about people who weren't able to vote in the last election. It would have tied in, but somehow it didn't happen. And I'm going to call the White House and find out why not.