The State of the Union: Where next for America’s progressives?

Chris Tarquini discusses whether President Obama's State of the Union address last night was progressive or a dash to the political middle.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech last night outlined his roadmap for the next year as well as signalling the direction his Presidency will take in the run up to the 2012 elections. Speaking before a Congress fresh off Democratic Party defeat in the mid-term House of Representatives elections many wondered what tone he would strike. Would it be a Clintonesque scramble to the middle or a results-driven, progressive call to action? What Obama delivered was both.

The start of his speech commented on the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and the growing political divisions within America. Addressing an audience wearing black and white ribbons in remembrance of the Tucson shooting, Obama positioned strong political debate as important to the democracy that Americans enjoyed:

“It’s no secret those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years… we have fought fiercely for our beliefs and that’s a good thing, it’s what a robust democracy demands.”

The President backed up his call for debate with a series of policy proposals that will have delighted those on the Republican and Democratic party side of the aisle in different areas. Responding to Republican calls to cut spending in many senses Obama doubled down, arguing for investment in the future. His calls to invest in bio-medical research, IT and clean energy is a Democratic issue, as was his plan to eliminate the billions of dollars to oil companies who he argued were “doing just fine on their own” and describing their products as “yesterday’s energy”.

While these subjects clearly were red meat for his own party his duel arguments that it would create jobs and protect the nation’s security were clearly aimed at the Independent and Republican viewer of the address:

It’s no coincidence Obama pushed for investment in energy but made not one reference to tough climate change legislation. He seems to have picked his battles, realising his controversial ‘cap and trade’ legislation would not play well in the mid-west states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, key swing states in 2012. This may turn out to be a disappointment for American progressives who were hoping for real action to combat climate change.

Obama then turned his attention to the reform of public schools, calling for the replacement of President Bush’s underfunded ‘No child left behind’ policy with a new initiative named ‘Race to the top’ that would provide $4.55 billion to public schools to push for more Americans to finish high school and graduate. Again, this was a focus on investment which will not have gone down well with the Republican House majority. Obama dwelled on the issue for a while which may signal that he is willing to make it one of his landmark policies in his battle for re-election.

The best political move Obama made during the speech was on the topic of illegal immigration. His call to address the “millions of undocumented workers living in the shadows” got a standing ovation from almost the entire room, however once he got specific about preventing the expulsion of “talented young people” who could be “further enriching the nation” it became evident that his idea of reforms were very different to those of his colleagues on the right of American politics.

If Obama or Congressional Democrats bring the DREAM act back into the heart of debate in Washington in the new year Republicans could face a serious political minefield; whilst being described as an “amnesty for illegal aliens” by many on the conservative fringe it is a massive issue in the key hispanic demographic which Republicans desperately need for electoral success in states such as Florida and New Mexico.

The President knows that even if the DREAM act doesn’t pass, bringing it to the political table could put Republicans in turmoil as their desire to hold their base against growing Tea Party pressure conflicts with their need to embrace the growing Hispanic electorate.

Obama’s comments on immigration were then followed by a political see-saw of corporate incentives and investment promises. He criticised the fact that “countries in Europe and Russia invest more in roads and railways than we do” whilst pushing for expenditure in high speed rail and internet. He argued it would be fully paid for and called for private investment to provide much of the infastructure spending.

He subsequently called for lowering corporate tax rates and paying for it by closing tax loopholes, prompting applause from Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and various members of Boehner’s party in the audience as he proposed a measure that is at the heart of almost all their legislation.

Aside from his corporate tax reduction plans he also pushed for further “sensible” de-regulation which was music to the ears of his opponents, however his subsequent reference to successes in financial reform and health insurance regulation exposed the deep divisions within the crowd, even as members from both parties sat together. Despite referencing an amendment to the latter of the two bills that would help small business, some Republicans found it difficult to applaud due to the topic of conversation. Obama signaled he would not turn back the clock on health care reform which while vital politically and ideologically was like a red rag to the Republican bull.

As expected the President touched on debt and said that as American families live inside their means they “deserve a government that does the same” whilst proposing a spending freeze for the next five years. He also promised to veto any bills full of earmarks that land on his desk which prompted an enthusiastic ovation from former Presidential election opponent John McCain. Obama quickly followed with a predictable praising of American troops and referenced the repeal of the regressive ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy that prevented gay and lesbian troops from openly serving in the military, which drew icy stares from some military bigwigs in the audience.

The President’s speech did not mention climate change legislation or gun control, but in particular the immigration topic was a well thought out political calculation over which progressive measures could help his re-election. Progressives were uncomfortable with the aforementioned topics not being part of the speech as well as Obama’s call to review Medicare spending. However, Speaker John Boehner’s expression from behind the President saw that the address did not move as far to the middle as some had expected in what is already being dubbed Obama’s ‘We Do Big Things’ speech.

The right wing had two responses to the address, with a relatively grown up but very fiscally conservative rebuttal from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan who predictably discussed his negative view of Obama’s healthcare reform and fiscal responsibility, however there was nothing fresh in the speech.

In contrast controversial Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s response was an all out attack, using a strange graph that seemed to randomly cherry pick unemployment data from certain years and called for Obama to push for policies he had already outlined in his address, including cutting corporation tax and reforming medical malpractice laws.

Throughout her speech she was looking at a teleprompter beyond the camera which made what was already a strange and error-strewn response seem weirder still. Bachmann of course managed to get a World War Two analogy into the debate, comparing American’s struggles with those of soldiers at Iwo Jima.

There are some who were always going to be unhappy with Obama’s speech as he outlined areas in which to cut taxes and cut services. However, if Obama can push through legislative achievements on immigration and energy combined with education reform most politically savvy progressives will realise the President needs to be seen as moving to the middle if he is to be re-elected.

Last night’s speech may not have been the most awe inspiring, progressive or comprehensive, but with a Republican controlled House of Representatives and a Presidential election about to get underway it should be a pleasant surprise for many of those on the left.

4 Responses to “The State of the Union: Where next for America’s progressives?”

  1. Shamik Das

    RT @leftfootfwd: The State of the Union: Where next for America's progressives? writes @ChrisTarquini

  2. Ganja Bot

    The State of the Union: Where next for America's progressives? – Left Foot Forward

  3. Thomas

    Immigration is not necessarily a winner for the GOP, but it is certainly a losing issue for the Democrats, where they appear to take a far left position relative to public opinion. The GOP treads lightly on immigration not so much because they need to chase Cuban votes in FL, but due to the will of its leadership to invite and exploit virtual slave labour to subvert social security and the minimum wage.

    It is a tragedy that the Democratic leadership participates and promotes this even more than the Republicans (and to the dismay of the unions and voters). The DREAM Act is a net vote loser, especially in such a high-unemployment economy.

  4. Julie Kinnear

    I don’t think Republicans have a candidate who could beat Obama in the next elections. Especially now it will be very hard for them since on the one hand they will try to promote their own ideas but at the same time they will be forced to provide support for the decisions of the current administration that will be beneficial to ordinary people.

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