Obama’s State of the Union Draws Mixed Reactions from Progressives

Camille Beredjick

President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night urged Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike to increase the minimum wage, push for comprehensive immigration reform, respond swiftly to the threat of climate change and stop gun violence. While Republicans across the board rebutted that Obama's proposals will not reduce the national deficit, progressives too had mixed reactions to last night's address, many of them critical.  For Colorlines, Imara Jones wrote that Obama should have emphasized that in order to grow, the nation needs to spend more, not less: To get the economy going again, he asked Congress to adopt his public sector and infrastructure jobs proposal; increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9; and ensure the affordability of early childhood education for all families. But within a two-minute timeframe, the president pivoted from these less than bold, but still noteworthy ideas on economic opportunity and launched into the reality of looming budget austerity. The truth is, unless imminent fiscal cuts are avoided, Obama’s fractured speech—one part growth and the other part austerity—may turn out to be a defining metaphor for his second term. The bottom line remains that there is no way to have both growth and austerity at the same time. We have to make a choice. Right now, through a mutual set of choices made by the Congress and the president, the country is headed for austerity. AlterNet's Tara Lohan said the president's proposals for combating climate change were a "mixed bag" that left his intentions unclear: Even though Obama gave some lip service to renewable energy, he also kept up his support for natural gas and said that he would cut red tape to speed up new oil and gas permits, an idea that seems to run counter to doing “more to combat climate change.” The president continues to cling to tired notion of "all of the above" energy policy, which won't cut it in the climate change age in which we've now embarked. He did, however, say he wanted to create an Energy and Security Trust to “shift cars and trucks off oil for good.” We'll see how that works out. The president stopped short of mentioning the contentious issue of tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline.  United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard lauded the speech in a press release. Although a Gerard has written that it is imperative Obama articulate his support for organized labor, and the address made little mention of labor or unions, Gerard wrote that Obama's plans would help revitalize the working middle class: The President’s proposal to increase the minimum wage is long overdue. Too many Americans for too long have been working long hours at multiple jobs and still struggling just to survive. We cannot call ourselves the greatest country on earth and allow that to continue. … Finally, while proposing a comprehensive agenda to reignite economic prosperity by creating an economy and democracy that works for all, the President must renew support for collective bargaining, which gives workers the power they need to secure family-supporting wages and benefits.  Regarding gun control, Salon's Steve Kornacki wrote that Obama made a strong case for moving legislation through Congress, particularly with the resounding declaration that victims of Newtown, Aurora and Blacksburg "deserve a vote." But Kornacki wrote that sweeping changes are impossible this year, due both to protests from groups like the National Rifle Association and the complexity of potential reform: Obama will not get his entire gun control wish list enacted this year. But there could be enough pressure to force Boehner and House Republicans to allow the up/down votes that Obama called for on Tuesday night. Presumably, the assault weapons ban and (probably) a limit on high-capacity magazines would go down; there’d be plenty of Democrats willing to help Republicans on these fronts. But bipartisan groups have formed in the Senate and the House to craft legislation dealing with background checks and straw purchases. It’s not at all out of the question that compromise bills in these areas will be enacted this year. By themselves, these bills wouldn’t have a huge impact on gun violence, but their passage would validate Obama’s insistence that “this time is different” and prove that the NRA can be beaten.  And writing for In These Times, Roger Bybee criticized the president's support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership: By pushing the TPP, Obama is fundamentally undermining his promise to build “an economy that works for everyone,” and—as Bill Clinton did with NAFTA—deeply alienating a substantial portion of his base along with much of the general public. No less than 53 percent of Americans are convinced that free trade has sapped America’s economic vigor. … How can President Obama speak of “shared prosperity” when the TPP will further marginalize and degrade working people in the United States? How can Obama proclaim his belief in “human rights” when the TPP—like NAFTA—is premised upon the systematic destruction of fundamental labor rights in countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia? The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

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Camille Beredjick is a student of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a Spring 2013 ITT intern.
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