When President Obama walks into the House chamber down the aisle and into the lectern later this evening, it will mark the start of his last year in office.
Though his last year in office does not start officially until a week from tomorrow, his final State of the Union is another milestone in a presidency of consequence.
One of the things that President Obama can brag about in his nationally televised speech tonight is that the economy is stronger than before he took office. The recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor statistics says that in December the economy added 292,000 jobs capping off 70 consecutive months of job growth and unemployment holding steady at 5.0%. Compared to the January 2009 jobs report, 598,000 jobs were lost and the unemployment rate crept up to 7.6%. On 20 January 2009 – the day Obama was inaugurated president – the Dow Jones closed at 7,949. Today it opens at 16,398.57.
As Paul Krugman notes in his New York Times column, that while presidents and their policies matter much less than what people believe, the cries from Republicans that President Obama’s initiatives would kill the economy have been proven wrong many times over.
Dodd-Frank would kill the economy… ObamaCare is a job killer… Raising taxes on the wealthiest wage earners would doom America…
The numbers speak for themselves: 292,000 jobs added last month, 70 consecutive months of job growth, and unemployment at 5.0%. According to Forbes in September 2014, Obama has outperformed Republican icon Ronald Reagan on the economy.
All that doom and gloom from Republicans never came to fruition.
Despite the good news concerning the economy, I expect the president to also address that the minimum wage has not increased in nearly six years. The minimum wage has held steady since 2009 at $7.25 when it was last increased under a 2007 law that raised it from $5.15 over a two-year period. The last time there was a vote to raise the minimum wage was when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the president was a Republican.
All House Democrats voted for the bill and 82 Republicans crossed over to support the measure. In the Senate, there was an amendment to add tax cuts to the proposed bill and the vote was more bipartisan with 94-3 in favor. The final amended bill was added as part of a larger appropriations package that was signed into law by George W. Bush. Before that it was a Republican-led Congress with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, that voted to raise the minimum wage in 1997.
I also expect the president to also address terrorism, both international and domestic, in his speech. Republicans claimed that this president has not done enough to deal with terrorism… except for authorizing Navy SEALs to neutralize Osama bin Laden… or for several drone strikes at the disdain of his liberal base… or for ordering air strikes on several ISIS targets in the Middle East. I am certain that the president will mention that if Republicans want to help combat terrorism they can craft a new authorization of use of military force to combat ISIS as well as confirm a Department of Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes instead of doing nothing.
Speaking of doing nothing, I have seen the list of people that will be attending the State of the Union sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box. Among those will be an empty seat specifically designated for victims of gun violence. Last year we saw highly publicized shootings in a historically black church in Charleston, a college campus in Oregon, a holiday party at a social services center in California, and a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. In response to the California shooting that might have been inspired by foreign terrorism, the Senate reacted by blocking a bill that would make it difficult for persons on a no-fly list to purchase firearms.
There are many other things I expect the president to address tonight. This speech will be different than last year when he laid out a list of things the new Congress should prioritize as well as remind Republicans that he has no more campaigns to run.
President Obama has many accomplishments to be proud of and in the final twelve months of his presidency there will be many things written about the good, the bad, and everything in between about his eight years in office. Major health care reform has evaded presidents from Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
Lyndon Johnson was previously the standard bearer on health care reform when he signed Medicare into law in July 1965 and presented Truman with the first Medicare card as both a symbol of the law’s passage and the former president’s advocacy. Even though Bill Clinton failed in passing a big health care reform package in the first half of his first term, he was able to get State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP, commonly referred to as CHIP) passed in 1997.
As previously mentioned financial reform with Dodd-Frank which established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan reform, and saving the automobile industry when the alternative was to let Detroit go bankrupt.
And in matters of civil rights. Again, Lyndon Johnson was considered the benchmark on this matter signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to President Obama taking office only one state was preforming same-sex marriages and another had taken that right away through a ballot initiative.
In his first term, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act which expanded hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, and signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Act of 2010 which lifted the ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.
His second term saw four big milestones in the marriage equality fight. The first two occurred in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and in Hollingsworth v. Perry that those defending Proposition 8 did not have standing. The next came in October 2014 when the Supreme Court refused to hear a case from various lower courts appealing the decision ruling that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. This expanded the number of states to 30.
Then came the Obergefell decision last summer which expanded marriage rights to same-sex couples in all 50 states.
This certainly would not have happened if the 2008 election had gone the other way.
President Obama laid the groundwork with his accomplishments over the last seven years and I do not see him tonight discussing his successes in depth tonight, but instead looking forward to what he can accomplish in his last year in office and in his post-presidency years. Though Democrats are hoping that he will state his case on why their party should retain control of the White House for another four years, this is not the venue to do that. Save that for when President Obama delivers his prime time keynote at the convention in Philadelphia later this coming summer.
In a way he is honoring his successes with the people that were invited to sit with First Lady Michelle Obama tonight. He is also recognizing the fights and debates coming ahead in the future ranging from climate change, the epidemic of opioid abuse in rural communities, health and fitness of our children, criminal justice reform, police procedure reforms, homelessness of veterans, and expanding current civil rights laws to include LGBT protections and the importance of staying “Fired up; ready to go” for these next battles.
In a video released on YouTube last week, President Obama had this to say about writing his last State of the Union speech:
This State of the Union address will not be the start of a last call for the Obama presidency but rather a curtain call.