There is absolutely no doubt that I am a progressive. I voted for Obama in 2012, the first year I voted in a presidential election. In high school, I identified as a communist, and even considered joining a group of hymn-writing musicians who lived in a black bus that ran on veggie diesel. I am in favor of universal healthcare, a guaranteed income, workers owning their work, and several other things that are downright socialist.
That said, like many progressives I know, I've been fairly disillusioned by the presidency of Barack Obama. To be clear, I don't think he's done a bad job on a whole as president, and I realize that many of the things he's been stymied on are the result of Congressional Republicans. I give him credit for being between a rock and a hard place. I also recognize that despite the fact that I think progressive ideas are the most logical and backed by study, not everyone agrees with progressive ideas. There should be some compromise, and I don't think progressives should just be handed everything we want. Balance is important, and we're lacking a good deal of that in Washington in every direction right now. But I still place a specific amount of blame on Barack Obama for my disillusionment, for a lot of reasons. It's with that mindset that I sat down to watch the White House live stream.
One of the first things I have to get out of the way, is that I'm very impressed with the actual presentation itself. Without getting into any of the actual content of the speech, the way the live stream made use of screen space to both show the speech, and use graphics to back up the points the President made was spectacular. As someone who loves digital marketing, I was tickled pink. Good job White House digital media team. You all deserve raises.
On to the speech itself. As far as State of the Union speeches, it wasn't the most spectacular I've ever seen. The beginning of it confused me, and seemed to be like a thread I couldn't follow. I wasn't really sure how all the topics at the beginning wove together. It seemed like he was skipping from topic to topic. I understand that one wants to touch on several of the major points you're going to address in a speech like this before diving into the speech, but I don't think Obama did so in a way that made sense. Brett also pointed out that Obama seemed to stutter a bit more than he normally does. Criticism aside, Barack Obama is still an amazing orator to say the least. He does a great job of making you want to hope for the best. Unfortunately, I don't anymore. It's not entirely his fault, but the disbelief of progressives is a hill that Obama will still have to climb.
The speech had a very populist message, which isn't at all surprising. There's a huge populist swing in the country right now in response to ever-growing income disparity and poverty. People are waking up and realizing that things are getting really bad for anyone who isn't rich. Even those who are rich are starting to worry that income inequality might pose a problem for them as well. In that environment, of course the Democratic president is going to give a populist speech. The problem is that no one believes Congress will ever pass any progressive legislation. Why even try? Obama can talk about income equality, raising the minimum wage, dealing with student loan debt, and making sure women get equal pay all he wants. I have absolutely no faith that it will happen during his presidency. If it happens at all. At this point, when Obama talks about these things, I roll my eyes and think if only, if only. I was encouraged by hearing him say that he plans to make more use of executive orders, but I don't really know how much that can accomplish. I mean, if he could really do that much, why wasn't he doing it already? On a logical level, I agree with the initiatives he put forth, such as funding infrastructure spending and these "tech hubs" he's talking about. On a practical level, however, I wonder how much these programs will actually contribute beyond the local economy where they are located. It's great to build models of solutions and point to them in speeches, but if that model can't be implemented across the board, then it's nothing more than a pretty example to hold up.
I certainly like several of the points that he made during the point of the speech where he talked about the tech industry and the innovation that comes from scientific funding. Most exciting was his call to restore federal funding to scientific research, which was accompanied in the enhanced live stream by a graphic discussing the economic impacts of three different areas of innovation. This is something that I shout from the roof-top every time I can. Granted, I'm probably biased, because one day I'll go back to school and end up in a STEM field, but I don't believe it can be said enough: Investment in scientific research is a driver of massive economic growth. NASA and Bell Labs are both great examples. Scientific research done for the sake of nothing more than learning more about our universe leads to applied sciences that spawn billion dollar industries. Memory foam, smartphones, and fiber optics all came out of the Apollo space program. Today, the industries created by those inventions are massive. Unfortunately, once again, Obama suffers from a lack of hope on the part of his base. I might tell anyone who will listen as often as I can that we need to fund science more; I don't actually think it can get through Congress. Once again, this is not Obama's fault (it is the fault of the people who believe that science is somehow "flawed" or not worth doing, and it was nice to see him call those people out with regards to climate change, much to their indignation), but it is still a hill that he has to climb.
The various other policy agendas that Obama laid out were not unexpected, and honestly I got a bit bored at some point, because it's stuff he's been talking about for a long time. Ultimately, I think that's part of Obama's problem. He's been repeating the same policy goals forever, but he's not getting anywhere. Sure, that's not his fault, but that just means Americans see him as impotent instead of incompetent. I'm not sure that's an improvement for him.
Speaking of impotent, though, one thing I didn't hear a lot about was specifics for reforming two things that are very important: the massive surveillance apparatus that the US has amassed, and the massive problems that our returning veterans face when it comes to getting the support they need. He touched on both subjects, both of which are incredibly important issues. I expected Obama to skirt the NSA issue, since he's been doing that ever since Snowden started leaking documents and turned public opinion about privacy versus security on its head. What I would have liked to see, however, was a specific plan of action on the backlog of cases with the VA. Of all the pretty graphics, a specific graphic about plans to reduce the VA backlog, or even more pointedly, the number of service-members committing suicide on a daily basis, was glaring by its absence. I found myself a bit sickened, honestly, by the way the entire chamber spent so long applauding one war hero. While he is, of course, very deserving of their praise, that sentiment would be better put to use during a vote on new ways to support our veterans returning from the wars we sent them to fight.
The truth of the matter is that I liked most of what Obama said in his speech. I usually do. He's great at throwing bones to his progressive base. Unfortunately, whether his fault or someone else's, I don't believe that any of his new policy ideas will actually be accomplished.