The President and the ‘P’ Word
It’s no secret that the plight of the poorest Americans is usually overshadowed by the concerns of the middle class in political pronouncements and priorities. So it is striking that in his seventh and final State of the Union, President Obama mentioned “poverty” twice and “middle class” not once. This could simply reflect the fact that our outgoing president is finally free to step out of campaign mode (or that the middle class is now a minority in the United States.) Nonetheless, his call for bipartisan action on poverty is welcome:
“I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I'd welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids.”
Last Friday in Columbia, S.C., Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, together with South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, hosted the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity, where six GOP presidential hopefuls outlined their plans for alleviating poverty. While Republicans and Democrats will note likely see eye to eye on government welfare programs anytime soon, a vigorous and ongoing debate about how we can best support our most vulnerable brothers and sisters would be an encouraging change of pace as candidates close in on the primaries and general election.
The State of the Union Is in Flux
I watched the hour-long State of the Union address with a mixture of pride and sadness. I was proud that 8 years ago, when Senator Barack Obama was campaigning in the New Jersey primary and St. Peter’s College, where I was teaching, gave him our gym for his Jersey City rally. At the end I got close enough to him to watch how he dealt personally with the students and neighborhood people who had packed the hall to hear him and now closed in to meet him personally. His address was both eloquent and intelligent and his decorum with his admirers was warm and sensitive.
Last night he confessed at the end that he had not been Lincoln or Roosevelt, but—with 17 million more people with health care, an economic recovery and diplomatic wins in Iran and Cuba—he had much to be proud of. If the political climate in America has turned nasty the most of the responsibility goes to the Republican determination to kill every piece of legislation Obama put forward. As a high percentage of the audience stood and cheered, House Speaker Paul Ryan sat glumly on his hands as if he were a statue in another room. Obama’s text was a master plan for social justice for progressive leaders for the next 20 years—from free college education to curing cancer. Next year I hope Obama runs for the Senate.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
A Welcome Lack of Specifics
Undoubtedly, there are those today lamenting the lack of attention paid to their issue in last night’s address: race, immigration, gun rights, abortion, the Middle East, etc. Yet the great value of the speech was it’s lack of specifics. Before we have fruitful discussion on overcoming any issue, we ought to heed the president’s desire for a better politics, to “change the system to reflect our better selves.”
The Calisthenics of Dysfunction
Watching a State of the Union Address is an exercise in viewing how dysfunctional our government really is. On that one night a year, the American people get to really see how “bipolar” our political system has become. Instead of coming together in unity, we see one party rising to give a standing ovation to the points they agree with, while the other party sits on their hands and scowls at anything suggested that benefits the ordinary American and not the special interests.
It is a disgraceful spectacle, this false panorama of the leaders of one party appearing to applaud the president of the other party, when all the while they scheme to thwart his initiatives at every turn, even when they may even agree with some things that are being said. They may talk about doing the “people’s business” when all they do is giving them “the business.”
The looks on the new speaker’s face said it all: he and the members of his party are not really interested in the people’s welfare, but their own. They do not care that it was ordinary people that voted them into office; as the president said, the only ones who have the same job for 30 years with security and benefits are politicians and they can get the “system” to do their will while they wrap themselves in cloying patriotism when they are so busy fundraising for their reelection.
Obama cited Pope Francis last night, the second time in a row he has deployed the pontiff during the state of the union address (h/t Chris Kerr). Last year, the president introduced his Cuba initiative with a Franciscan line about diplomacy being “the work of ‘small steps.’” This time he went full Francis to scold U.S. politicians about the increasingly harsh rhetoric directed at Muslims:
His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot I stand tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.
Obama won’t have a chance to feature Francis in a third SOTU address in a row. Based on past performance, the candidate most likely to quote the pope in 2017 would be the Francis-happy Democrat Bernie Sanders, who apparently hasn’t seen a Pope Francis meme that he hasn’t liked, retweeted or created himself.
Senior Editor/Chief Correspondent