President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address (SOTU) has been hailed by many as a loud resurgence to bold progressivism — but, on one of the nation’s most dire fronts, he was at best muffled, and at worst silent.
Last Tuesday, Obama delivered his sixth and second-to-last SOTU. Free from the constraints of a looming presidential re-election bid and the pressures to appear centrist for red-state congressional Democrats up for re-election, Obama laid out what many have termed an “ambitious progressive agenda,” calling for free community college for all and tax credits for working families. These two proposals would be paid for by taxing the rich — specifically, increasing the capital gains tax and expanding it to cover inherited wealth. While this agenda indicates Obama is on the offensive, it simply will not fly in the Republican-controlled Congress, pressing many pundits to refer to it as a “Hail Mary.”
Characterizing the speech as a “progressive Hail Mary” is problematic for two reasons: first, it was not all that progressive, at least for those relegated to the lower echelon of our social order. And second, it is much more significant than a last-ditch effort to tango with a Congress who, frankly, doesn’t wish to dance.
In regards to the content, the speech was noteworthy for its fetish with the middle class and disregard for the poor. While using the phrase “Middle Class Economics” as his motif, Obama failed to mention the 15 percent of the nation’s population — or 46 million people — who live below the poverty line. In fact, 20 percent of the nation’s children face food insecurity. And these circumstances not only relegate these kids to a childhood of emotional despair, but, as many medical studies show, want of food also has negative impacts on brain development. These people, more than anyone, need the attention of the president — even if that attention is rhetorical.
To be fair, Obama gave a slight nod to low-income workers when he called for Congress to raise the minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick leave for the 43 million workers who currently go without, most of whom are employed in the low-wage restaurant and retail industries.
But his call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 doesn’t go far enough. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), raising the base wage to $10.10 would lift one million workers out of poverty — while still leaving 10.4 million working people below the poverty line. Further, also according to the CEPR, adjusted for inflation and worker productivity growth, the minimum wage of 1968 would stand at $21.72 today. Indeed, those at the bottom of the income ladder need and deserve a much heftier raise.
Congress isn’t going to enact any of Obama’s proposals, but his SOTU matters. It is a means by which he can shape the national political debate and define one of the two major political parties ahead the 2016 elections. More to the point, the Democratic Party is on the precipice of nominating a 2016 presidential candidate — Hillary Clinton — who is not merely apathetic towards raising the lot of the nation’s materially poor, but is, frankly, against it. Had Obama placed these initiatives — ending poverty and restoring the minimum wage to a fair rate — at the forefront of his speech, Clinton would at least have to acknowledge them in the forthcoming months.
But Obama still has one more SOTU next year, a speech that, because it is closer to the election, may have more leverage over Clinton’s 2016 agenda. Here’s to hoping that, next year, the president finds the state of America’s most exploited — the poor — relevant to the state of our union.