For many of us, the State of the Union is more than just an opportunity for President Obama to publicly frame his policy priorities for the year. It's a moment when all the hopes, struggles, fears, and anticipation of the nation's citizenry crystallize, a moment of reflection and national self-reckoning. And coming after a year of unprecedented congressional gridlock, when continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government, and when Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's horrifying breach of public trust, there seems to be a particular urgency associated with this year's address among those who will feel most its repercussions. For those of us in such circumstances, tonight's address is anything more than just a speech.
To that end, we asked a few of our authors, engaged citizens themselves, to speak on behalf of those caught in the political crossfire. What follows is what we hope to hear from our President and what we are afraid we will not hear, both tonight and moving forward into the contested future.
AMY ALEXANDER, coauthor of Lay My Burden Down and author of Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention
This will be the President's fifth State of the Union address but the first since he's entered his last term as Commander in Chief. Seeing as he doesn't have to worry about re-election, I genuinely hope he'll take strong positions on crucial policy issues that the Republicans have been obstructing: raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing the minimum wage.
It may not be the appropriate setting for discussion, but I also hope that post-SOTU speech, the President will begin a period of signing executive orders to push forward on funding for big infrastructure projects and other critically-needed programs and initiatives that do not require congressional approval. It also is past time for him to speak clearly and with compassion about the need for employers to end gender, race and age discrimination in the hiring process. I truly hope he comes out swinging!
I would hope that Obama would reverse the detain-and-deport policies he has been promoting. While some aspects of so-called immigration reform depend on Congress, there is actually quite a bit, especially regarding levels of detention and deportation, that us under executive mandate. He could redefine priorities and expand the categories of people eligible for parole.
In a way, it would just mean bringing the reality into sync with the rhetoric. He always says that he wants to concentrate on deporting “dangerous criminals” and not people who are just working for a better life. But he defines “dangerous criminals” so broadly—including, for example, people who simply were caught the first time they tried to cross the border—that he has kept the deportation numbers higher than any previous administration.
PHILIP WARBURG, author of Harvest the Wind: America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability
Once upon a time, before the November 2010 election, it looked like Congress just might move forward with courageous, forward-thinking energy legislation that would finally draw a line in the sand on U.S. carbon emissions. Who knows when that time will return? In the meantime, President Obama has powerful regulatory tools that empower the EPA to restrict carbon emissions from our nation’s number-one climate culprit: coal-fired power plants. In today’s State of the Union, he will have a chance to reaffirm his commitment to using these tools, and to declare to the American people that he is not willing to surrender to Congressional paralysis on climate change.
ERIC SCHWARZ, CEO of Citizen Schools and author of the forthcoming The Opportunity Equation: How Everyday Citizens Are Combatting the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools
I hope President Obama will call upon America to wake up! Wake up to a class-based achievement gap in everything from reading to college graduation rates that is twice as big as it was when most members of Congress grew up. Wake up to a class-based opportunity gap that results in thousands of extra hours of learning and thousands of extra dollars invested in learning for wealthier students. Wake up the fact that growing opportunity and achievement gaps mean that social mobility in America is now lower than it is in France and Germany and Poland. And wake up to the fact that growing opportunity gaps hurt all of us—causing a 3 to 5 percent decline in Gross Domestic Product, according to the consulting firm McKinsey. We need to wake up to the fact that we need to invest more in education, and we need to invest smartly, putting money behind proven programs like Citizen Schools and many others that are effectively addressing inequity by expanding the learning day and by mobilizing volunteer mentors and teachers to lift opportunity for all.
CAROL CORBETT BURRIS, high school principal and author of On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle against Re-segregation
I fear that the root causes of the achievement gaps—poverty, segregation, and under-funded urban schools—will be brushed aside by a President who seems all too eager to believe that there are easy educational fixes. Race to the Top has been a disaster—with billions wasted on untested, corporate style reforms. I would love to hear the President say, “We learned and are changing course.” That is, however, not my expectation.
JAMES W. RUSSELL, author of Social Insecurity: 401(k)s and the Retirement Crisis
Barack Obama should do something bold by calling for an expansion of Social Security benefits to address the growing retirement crisis.
He should also say: “I have reconsidered my former support of a chained Consumer Price Index for calculating Social Security cost of living adjustments. I apologize for having supported a plan that would have lowered Social Security benefits for our senior citizens. I received bad advice.”
Social Security needs to be expanded, not cut back, especially at a time when 401(k) plans have failed to provide adequate retirement income.