By Julianne Malveaux
President Barack Obama knocked it out of the park during the State of the Union address. He was strong, progressive, firm, and relaxed. He was almost cocky as he offered a few jokes, smugly announced that he would have no more elections, and just generally exuded confidence. Instead of the kumbaya thing, he laid out his priorities to a Republican Congress that will likely block much of what he proposed, especially when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy to support his free community college program.
President Obama “threw down” in the hour-long speech that was frequently punctuated by applause. Republicans frequently withheld applause, but his confidence suggested that whether they offered applause or withheld it was of no concern to him.
Michelle Obama wasn’t playing, either. While she has usually worn her trademark sleeveless dresses with pearls, once a puffy skirt, once with long sleeves. The shift look certainly flatters her figure and her toned arms tout her fitness. Her two-piece tweed suit, though, was a business suit. It reminded us that she is a lawyer (with a nod and a wink to CBS hit show “The Good Wife”) in addition to being a stylish first lady. Hopefully, the business attire signals that she will take care of business in the next two years. Her “Get Fit” initiative is much needed, and her partnership with Jill Biden to focus on military families is consistent with the president’s in providing jobs and other assistance for veterans.
In these last two years, perhaps the first lady can spread her wings and focus on the work and family issues she lived and that so many women juggle. I hope for too much, I think, when I suggest that she deal with the gender pay gap, but that is also an issue that would benefit from her attention.
While the president highlighted efforts to benefit the middle class, he mentioned poverty just once. There are 45.3 million people who lived in poverty in 2013, the last year for which data are available. The rates are 9.7 percent for Whites, 12.3 percent for Asian-Americans, 25.3 percent for Hispanics, and 27.2 percent for African-Americans. In mentioning poverty without mentioning that some experience poverty differently than others, the president failed to put a tiny pin in his own celebration. I wouldn’t expect him to mention race explicitly, but he could have said, “And while poverty rates are falling, one in four families in some communities still experience poverty.”
Similarly, President Obama justifiably touted falling unemployment, which dropped from 6.7 percent a year ago, to 5.6 percent in December. The decrease has been across the board and included African-Americans and Hispanic as well.
However, there are 700,000 fewer people in the labor market than a year ago, indicating that more people are entering the labor market in response to its perceived strength. Without indicating race, the president could have talked about the high unemployment rates among some groups.
Of course, presidents traditionally offer a laundry list of issues, with few getting more than a couple sentences worth of attention. Still, since the economic success story is one that President Obama correctly touted and it would have been appropriate for him to simply mention the unevenness of recovery.
And since the Affordable Care Act is a successful part of the Obama legacy, with nearly 7 million more people enrolling in the program, and some of the 2014 glitches eliminated, it would have been appropriate to mention it, specifically and in depth. Some might consider that waving a red flag in the faces of bullish Republicans, but in some ways the speech was a red flag, anyway.
When I listened to the State of the Union address, I thought “this is the Obama I voted for – twice, the Obama that was but a rising star in 2004, whose rousing speech at the Boston Democratic convention propelled him to national attention.” This Obama seemed presidential, not conciliatory. He stood by the executive orders he issued in 2014, and stated that he will his veto pen if Congress attempts to overturn his effort.
As he did in Boston, President Obama ended on a unifying note, a line that he has used often: “We are more than red states and blue states, we are the United States of America.” He was motivated when he said, “let’s start the work right now.” Bravo, Mr. President. Welcome back!
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author based in Washington, D.C.