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A Closer Look at President Obama's State of the Union Speech


By Daniella Gibbs Léger

This morning I was trying to think about a song that could best encapsulate the State of the Union Address by President Obama. Not quite a "How You Like Me Now" moment, but close. There was an energy in his remarks that was palpable. And despite what some critics say, I found his speech to be engaging, uplifting and optimistic. 

Given how rough the last year was, I think it’s fair for people to ask if there is really reason for optimism coming out of Washington and Congress; especially considering Congress is less popular than cockroaches. But if there is one take away I have from last night’s speech, it’s that the president realizes that there is power outside of D.C. While Washington has remained rather gridlocked over the past few months, cities and states have been hunkering down and getting things done for their residents.  And last night the president made clear that he is going to lend his voice and support wherever things are moving and getting done.

There was a lot to like in his speech last night, issues that are important to all Americans, but particularly to our community. While listing the improvements the economy has made over the past few years, Obama acknowledged that for far too many people, the recovery is more theoretical than tangential. I think that’s why you saw his focus on concrete things he can do to improve the lives of those working and those looking to find work. It is smart to continue to push Congress to raise the minimum wage, but it is even smarter to issue an executive order calling for a raise in the minimum wage for federal contractors. And there are plenty of cities and states that are pushing to increase their minimum wages. This is a real, tangible step that will benefit many, especially women. Women make up 64 percent of all minimum wage workers. The president also touched on education, the need for better job training and specifically highlighted the challenges facing young men of color.

The president’s detractors say that there were no big, new ideas in last night’s speech. There may not have been any grand proposals for things like entitlement reform, but that doesn’t mean that the proposals he laid out are insignificant. But aside from that, I’d like to remind these folks that the make-up of Congress hasn’t changed since the last State of the Union, when the president DID put forth some bold new plans. What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different response? Since it is crystal clear that this Congress (specifically the House) has no intention of passing big, major, sweeping legislation, doesn’t it make sense to try a different tactic? Focus on what can get done, even if it’s something “smaller”? I think what the American people want to see coming out of DC are some tangible accomplishments. So, if it’s a smaller housing bill here, increased minimum wage here, a new environmental regulation here, that’s good! Because those quote unquote small things add up to change. 

So we’ll see what happens over the next few months. But if last night is any indication, I think we can expect to see a White House singularly focused on getting things done. And if that means bypassing Congress to do it, so be it.

I have to end by noting that Joe Biden is the best, as evidenced by this video.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123


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