With the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely to take up a large measure of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech, he is unlikely to have enough time or space to detail his accomplishments and his agenda going forward. Here are more details from the White House about the President’s plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure over the next year:
The historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will rebuild crumbling road and bridges, replace lead pipes, help make available reliable, affordable high-speed internet to every family in America, and produce concrete results that change people’s lives for the better. It will also support American manufacturing jobs by making sure taxpayer dollars are spent purchasing American made goods. Rebuilding our infrastructure and supply chains here at home, and making more here in America, means we can create more good jobs, move what we make more efficiently, and ultimately lower prices for the American people. By reaching all communities all across the country – including rural communities and historically underserved populations – these once-in-a-generation investments will position the United States to win the 21st century.
In the first 106 days since President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the White House Infrastructure Implementation Team has hit the ground running to deliver concrete results for the American people. Nearly $100 billion of dedicated funding has been announced and is headed to states, territories, Tribes and local governments, with another nearly $50 billion of notices of funding opportunity released. To date, over 4000 projects have been announced, from airport improvements to port upgrades to superfund cleanup sites. Over 90 percent of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding will be spent by non-federal partners, meaning the Biden-Harris administration will be partnering with states, territories, Tribes, local governments and others to deliver the crucial infrastructure projects and the good-paying jobs created by these investments.
In his first State of the Union Address, President Biden will highlight how our historic federal investments in infrastructure will create a visible impact in the lives of American families this year by committing to start repair on 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges. The President will also commit to rapid progress across every facet of the law.
Roads & Bridges: As a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Department of Transportation announced $52.5 billion for highways and more than $5.3 billion for bridges for fiscal year 2022. Over the next year, states, territories, Tribes and local governments will start to improve 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges with federal funding, representing at 44% and 50% increase respectively from average annual improvement levels over the past six years.
Airports: In December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at USDOT announced $3 billion for 3,075 airports across the country that can use investments to upgrade critical infrastructure. Over the next year, FAA will be able to invest in over 600 airport infrastructure projects, including preserving 400 pavement projects on taxiways and runways.
Transit: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes the largest Federal investment in public transit in history. Over the next year, communities will be investing in an estimated 15,000 new buses, ferries and subway cars, improving commutes for working Americans, families, and students across the country and reducing greenhouse emissions.
Rail: The Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak are transforming the nation’s transportation system. In the next year, Amtrak is investing Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding in 75 new, Made-in-America locomotives, at least 73 Made-in-America Intercity Trainsets, and major improvements to facilities in the Northeast Corridor.
Ports, Waterways, and Flood Mitigation: With $14 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other appropriations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will advance over 500 projects across 52 states and territories to strengthen supply chains, improve waterways, and reduce flooding. Additional projects will be funded by the Port Infrastructure Development Program.
Broadband Access & Deployment: In the next year, the Department of Commerce will issue final guidance and notices of funding opportunity for the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program and the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, which together will distribute more than $43 billion in broadband funding. The Department of Agriculture will issue a new funding opportunity notice for the ReConnect program which will provide nearly $2 billion in funding for rural broadband deployment.
Broadband Affordability: Over the next year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will build on the more than 10 million lower-income households already receiving subsidized internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program. The FCC will also adopt rules requiring broadband providers to display easy-to-understand labels to allow consumers to more effectively comparison shop for broadband services.
CLIMATE, CLEAN ENERGY, AND ENVIRONMENT
Clean Water: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $7.4 billion for Fiscal Year 2022 in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding will be available to states to upgrade America’s aging water infrastructure, sewerage systems, lead pipes and service lines, and more through their State Revolving Fund programs. By this time next year, using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding alone, EPA will have worked with state and local governments to fund more than 400 new water projects from replacing lead service lines to improving drinking water systems.
Abandoned Mine Lands: The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced nearly $725 million in Fiscal Year 2022 funding for 22 states and the Navajo Nation to create good-paying union jobs and catalyze economic opportunity by reclaiming abandoned mine lands. Over the next year, DOI expects states, Tribes, and other partners to reclaim over 15,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, as well as launch new reclamation efforts that will ultimately address tens of thousands of additional acres across the country using Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds. This investment delivers on President Biden’s historic commitment to investing in the revitalization of the energy communities that have powered our country for generations.
Orphan Wells: The first $1.15 billion in funding is now available to 26 states to create good-paying jobs cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells across the country. Over the next year, we expect the DOI’s new Orphan Well Program will start work plugging, capping, and remediating over 8,000 abandoned oil & gas well sites in communities across the country.
Superfund: EPA announced $1 billion to initiate cleanup and clear the backlog of 49 previously unfunded Superfund sites and accelerate cleanup at dozens of other sites across the country, with work expected at more than 80 Superfund cleanup projects in the next year.
Great Lakes Restoration: EPA announced $1 billion for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, including $200 million in Fiscal Year 2022, to accelerate progress in the clean-up and restoration of the Great Lakes’ most environmentally degraded sites, securing clean water and a better environment for millions of Americans in the Great Lakes region. In the next year, EPA will work across more than 20 sites across the Great Lakes basin targeting open areas of concern.
Wildfire Resilience: In the next year, the DOI will increase its work to reduce the risk of wildfires to communities by more than 30 percent– removing over 300,000 acres of burnable fuels in the places where communities and wildlands meet – as well as the start of work to reduce wildfire risk on an additional 250,000 acres across the country. With BIL funding and existing appropriations, the US Forest Service at the Department of Agriculture also expects to execute hazardous fuels reduction work on more than 4 million acres over the next year, including reforesting up to 400,000 acres to create new carbon sinks on previously burned lands.
Critical Mineral Refinery: The Department of Energy (DOE) released a Request for Information for the construction and operation of a first-of-its kind $140 million demonstration facility to extract and separate rare earth elements and other critical minerals from coal ash, mine tailings, acid drainage, and other legacy fossil fuel waste to sustainably produce materials key to next-generation clean energy technologies. This facility will support good-paying manufacturing jobs and help secure a sustainable domestic supply chain to fight the climate crisis.
Battery Manufacturing: This Spring, DOE will make available nearly $3 billion to bolster domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage. This includes refining and production of battery materials, manufacturing of battery cells and packs, and end-of-life recycling to create good-paying manufacturing jobs and support growing demand for electric vehicles and energy storage to meet the Administration’s ambitious net-zero climate goals.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely to take up a large measure of President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech, he is unlikely to have enough time or space to detail his accomplishments and his agenda going forward. Here are more details from the White House about what the President will say about the economy:
President Biden ran for office with a new economic vision: to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not the top down. On Tuesday, the President will make a strong case that the Biden-Harris economic strategy is producing historic results, and lay out his plan to tackle the economic challenges ahead. He will underscore that during his first year in office, due in large part to the American Rescue Plan, entrepreneurship and business investment rebounded, the economy achieved its fastest job growth in American history, the fastest economic growth in nearly 40 years, and a faster recovery than every other advanced economy. And, he will emphasize that this progress is occurring amidst an historic shift from the old, outdated trickle-down approach to one that centers on workers, families, and small businesses.
During his first State of the Union Address, the President will also make clear that there is more work to do to rebuild the economy towards resilience, security, and sustainability. Too many families continue to feel the squeeze of higher costs. The President will make clear that price increases that become entrenched are pernicious, and eat away at the economic progress the country is making. The President will lay out his plan to lower costs for American families while continuing an historically strong economic recovery by:
Making more things in America, strengthening our supply chains, and moving goods faster and cheaper;
Reducing the cost of everyday expenses working families face and reducing the deficit;
Promoting fair competition to lower prices, help small businesses thrive, and protect consumers; and
Eliminating barriers to good-paying jobs for workers all across America.
Making more things in America, strengthening our supply chains, and moving goods faster and cheaper: President Biden will make clear that he believes one of the best ways to lower costs over the long run is to increase the productive capacity of our economy—put simply, to make more things in America with more American workers contributing and earning a good living. He will describe the emerging manufacturing comeback, with American companies betting on America again because of the Administration’s commitment to domestic industrial revitalization and technological development. He will note that in just the last year, the economy added 375,000 manufacturing jobs and companies announced nearly $200 billion in investments for semiconductor, electric vehicle, battery, and critical mineral production and manufacturing in the United States. He will recount how Intel recently announced a new $20 billion factory outside of Columbus, Ohio that will create 7,000 construction jobs and another 3,000 permanent jobs – another sign of the strength of the American economy.
President Biden will also announce specific goals for implementation of his landmark Bipartisan Infrastructure law (BIL), a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s economic competitiveness that will strengthen supply chains and move goods to market faster and more efficiently, encouraging more companies to choose America. Over the next year:
States, territories, Tribes and local governments will start to improve 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges with federal funding, representing a 44% and 50% increase respectively from average annual improvement levels over the past six years.
The Federal Aviation Administration will be able to invest in over 600 airport infrastructure projects, including preserving 400 pavement projects on taxiways and runways.
Communities will invest in an estimated 15,000 new buses, ferries and subway cars, improving commutes for working Americans, families, and students across the country and reducing greenhouse emissions.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will advance over 500 projects across 52 states and territories to strengthen supply chains, improve waterways, and reduce flooding.
The Environmental Protection Agency will work with state and local governments to fund more than 400 new water projects from replacing lead service lines to improving drinking water systems.
States, Tribes, and other partners will use BIL funds to reclaim over 15,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, as well as launch new reclamation efforts that will ultimately address tens of thousands of additional acres across the country.
The Interior Department’s new Orphan Well Program will start work plugging, capping, and remediating over 8,000 abandoned oil & gas well sites in communities across the country.
The Interior Department will increase its work to reduce the risk of wildfires to communities by more than 30 percent – removing over 300,000 acres of burnable fuels in the places where communities and wildlands meet – as well as the start of work to reduce wildfire risk on an additional 250,000 acres across the country.
The Department of Energy will take steps to launch a first-of-its kind $140 million demonstration facility to extract and separate rare earth elements and other critical minerals from coal ash, mine tailings, acid drainage, and other legacy fossil fuel waste to sustainably produce materials key to next-generation clean energy technologies.
The Department of Energy will make available nearly $3 billion to bolster domestic manufacturing of advanced batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.
To build on these investments and spur more private-sector investment in the United States, the President will also call on Congress to send him bipartisan competitiveness legislation like the COMPETES and USICA bills that have passed the House and the Senate to invest in innovation, manufacturing, and economic development capacity across all of America so America can outcompete China and the rest of the world in the industries of the future.
Reducing the cost of everyday expenses working families face: President Biden will call on Congress to send him legislation that lowers costs of everyday expenses working families face and lowers the deficit by rewarding work, not wealth. He will lay out specific, practical measures that would reduce costs for families right now, including prescription drug costs and health care premiums, child care and pre-k costs, and energy costs. He will point to the other ideas he has proposed on areas ranging from housing to care for seniors and people with disabilities to higher education affordability to direct tax relief for families. These efforts build on the support provided in the American Rescue Plan that has helped reduce the cost of health care, helped more than 5000 universities and community colleges make higher education more affordable, made work pay better for low-income workers through an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, and provided historic middle class tax relief for tens of millions of working families through an expanded Child Tax Credit.
The President will make clear that we can lower costs while lowering the deficit by rewarding work, not wealth. He will outline proposals to make sure corporations and the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share, while making clear that no one making under $400,000 a year should see their taxes increased.
The President will call on Congress to send him a bill that lowers costs and lowers the deficit without delay. American families need relief from higher costs, and they need it now.
Promoting fair competition to lower prices, help small businesses thrive, and protect consumers: President Biden will explain that we can also lower costs by promoting fair competition in the U.S. economy. The Administration has taken decisive actions in the first year to stop the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, farmers, and small businesses. He will also announce new actions the Biden-Harris Administration is taking this year to tackle some of the most pressing competition and consumer protection problems across our economy. Specifically, he will announce new steps to:
Lower consumer prices and level the playing field for American businesses in ocean shipping. The President will explain that most traded goods—everything from the housewares you buy online to the agricultural products that American farmers market overseas—are transported by oceangoing vessels. However, the ocean shipping industry is now dominated by just a small number of giant, foreign-owned companies. Three global alliances—groups of ocean carriers that work together—now control 80% of global container ship capacity and 95% on the critical East-West trade lines. And, since the beginning of the pandemic, these carriers have been increasing shipping costs through higher rates and fees. The President will note that the foreign carriers are now seeing record profits, while prices for American consumers and businesses have risen. To combat this problem, the President will announce steps to lower consumer prices and level the playing field for American businesses in ocean shipping, including launching a new Federal Maritime Commission and Department of Justice initiative to promote competition in the ocean freight transportation system. He will also note that the Federal Maritime Commission is ramping up its oversight of the global shipping industry to address complaints about the unfair fees the carriers charge to American businesses. Read the full Biden-Harris Plan to Lower Consumer Prices and Level the Playing Field in Ocean Shipping here.
Protect seniors and other nursing home residents by cracking down on unsafe nursing homes. The President will explain that while the federal government spends tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on nursing homes annually, these federal funds too often flow to nursing homes with bad track records and dangerous conditions. He will explain that 200,000 residents and staff in nursing homes have died from COVID-19, representing nearly 23% of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States. He will also stress that despite well-documented, widespread health and safety violations, there has been little or no accountability. To protect seniors and crack down on unsafe nursing homes, President Biden will call on Congress to provide nearly $500 million to CMS Survey and Certification, a 24% increase, to support health and safety inspections at nursing homes. He will also announce that the Biden-Harris Administration will, among other new initiatives, establish a new minimum staffing ratio to protect residents, expand penalties for poor performing nursing homes and beef up scrutiny, improve transparency and Americans’ ability to comparison shop for the best home, strengthen value-based payment to ensure taxpayers pay for quality care, and continue to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations at nursing homes across the country. Read the full Biden-Harris Plan to Protect Seniors by Cracking Down on Unsafe Nursing Homes here.
Eliminating barriers to good-paying jobs for workers all across America: President Biden will reflect on one of the strongest labor market recoveries in American history. Specifically, the President will note that during his first year in office, the economy added more than 6.6 million jobs; the unemployment rate fell at its fastest pace on record; the number of number of workers filing for unemployment insurance declined by more than 70 percent; and millions of Americans have entered and reentered the labor force, with the largest increase in the labor force participation rate in more than 25 years. He will highlight the important role that the American Rescue Plan played in positioning employers to hire and workers to rejoin the labor force and find higher quality jobs. Earlier this year, he directed the Secretary of Labor to work with states to reinstate work search requirements for unemployment insurance recipients.
To further our economic recovery and increase the productive capacity of our economy, the President will announce his Administration’s plan to ensure everyone who wants to work should have the opportunity to find a high-quality job. Specifically, he will express his support for:
Enacting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. President Biden will express his firm belief that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to organize or join a union, and the right to bargain collectively with their employer, without fear of intimidation, coercion, threats, and anti-union propaganda. He will reiterate that the middle class built America and unions built the middle class. And, he will emphasize that empowering workers is central to the Biden-Harris strategy to grow our economy from the bottom up and the middle out. The President will call on Congress to pass the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, ensuring that more private-sector workers and many more public-sector workers nationwide have a genuine right to organize and bargain collectively.
Expanding skills-based hiring and increasing access to registered apprenticeships and training. President Biden will reiterate his commitment to creating pathways to the middle class for all Americans. He will stress that millions of Americans without a college degree are needlessly disadvantaged in the pursuit of good jobs, even when they have the skills and knowledge employers need. To support skills-based hiring, President Biden will announce that his Administration will explore using federal and procurement dollars to by hire based on skills rather than educational qualifications alone, , including through boosting hiring of people from Registered Apprenticeships and labor-management partnership training programs. Additionally, the Administration remains committed to strengthening the pipeline for more underserved communities to access these opportunities. As an example, the Administration has supported and increased access to quality trucking jobs by expanding Registered Apprenticeship programs for drivers; and developing more seamless paths for veterans and underrepresented communities, such as women, to access good driving jobs. He will state that the Administration is supporting and challenging employers to move towards skill-based hiring, including through a new budget proposal to invest in skills-based hiring research tools and technical assistance. This effort builds on the American Rescue Plan’s critical workforce investments in the past year – with more than half of states already committing Fiscal Recovery Funds to training and apprenticeships and efforts to hire and retain critical workers – and catalyzing investments in place-based regional workforce strategies through the Commerce Department’s Good Jobs Challenge.
Expanding programs in high-demand fields at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). President Biden will explain that research has found that HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs are vital to helping underrepresented students achieve economic mobility, including in STEM fields. However, he will also stress that these institutions have significantly fewer resources than other top colleges and universities, undermining their ability to grow and support more students. To address this persistent problem, and building on the progress made by the American Rescue Plan providing the largest investment through the Department of Education ever in these institutions, the President will call on Congress to expand existing institutional aid grants to HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs, which can be used by these institutions to strengthen their academic, administrative, and fiscal capabilities, including by creating or expanding educational programs in high-demand fields (e.g., STEM, computer sciences, nursing, and allied health).
Providing up to more than $2,000 in additional assistance to low-income students by increasing the Pell Grant award. President Biden will note that broad access to education beyond high school is increasingly important for economic growth and competitiveness in the 21st century, but also remind us that higher education has become unaffordable for too many families. Over 6 million students depend on Pell Grants to finance their education, yet the amount of money in these grants has not kept up with the rising cost of college and DREAMers still do not have access. During his State of the Union Address, President Biden will call on Congress to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by more than $2,000.
Supporting paycheck fairness. President Biden will note that women in the U.S. who work full-time, year-round are paid only 83 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts, on average. He will also express his belief that ensuring equal pay is essential to advancing America’s values of fairness and equity as well as our economic strength here at home and our competitiveness abroad. President Biden will use his State of the Union Address as an opportunity to call on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which will take important steps towards the goal of ending pay discrimination.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. President Biden will recount that throughout the pandemic, millions of American workers have put their lives on the line to keep their communities and country functioning, including the 40 percent of frontline workers who are people of color. The President will express his belief that hard-working Americans deserve sufficient wages to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, without having to work multiple jobs. The President already issued executive actions to ensure 370,000 federal employees and employees of federal contractors are paid a minimum of $15 per hour – because investing in workers also makes employers, including the government, work better and faster. The President will call on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and end the tipped minimum wage and sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities so that workers across the country can have a little breathing room and provide opportunity for their families.
Creating a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. President Biden will stress that nearly four of five private sector workers – and 90 percent of the lowest wage workers – have no access to paid family leave, which is a critical input for economic growth and competitiveness in the 21st century. He will call on Congress to pass comprehensive paid family and medical leave legislation so millions of American workers can take time to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill loved one or heal from their own serious illness.
President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union message, the last of his Administration, resounded like the Obama of 2008 and 2009 – the themes and tones of unity and his confidence in the spirit of the American people and the values that underlie this nation still dominant, his passion, energy and enthusiasm for his role as President and Commander-in-Chief roaring to the surface. But instead of being overtaken by cynicism under the unprecedented personal attacks and disrespect he has been shown since the very first State of the Union address in 2009, Obama seemed incredibly relaxed and comfortable in his own skin, still filled with optimism, excitement, if sharpened by his experience.
Here is President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address to the nation, highlighted:
9:10 P.M. EST
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans:
Tonight marks the eighth year that I’ve come here to report on the State of the Union. And for this final one, I’m going to try to make it a little shorter. (Applause.) I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa. (Laughter.) I’ve been there. I’ll be shaking hands afterwards if you want some tips. (Laughter.)
And I understand that because it’s an election season, expectations for what we will achieve this year are low. But, Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the constructive approach that you and the other leaders took at the end of last year to pass a budget and make tax cuts permanent for working families. So I hope we can work together this year on some bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform — (applause) — and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse. (Applause.) So, who knows, we might surprise the cynics again.
But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients. And I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done. Fixing a broken immigration system. (Applause.) Protecting our kids from gun violence. (Applause.) Equal pay for equal work. (Applause.) Paid leave. (Applause.) Raising the minimum wage. (Applause.) All these things still matter to hardworking families. They’re still the right thing to do. And I won’t let up until they get done.
But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to just talk about next year. I want to focus on the next five years, the next 10 years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future.
We live in a time of extraordinary change — change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of new immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change; who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.” Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.
What was true then can be true now. Our unique strengths as a nation — our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.
In fact, it’s in that spirit that we have made progress these past seven years. That’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. (Applause.) That’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector. (Applause.) That’s how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops coming home and our veterans. (Applause.) That’s how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love. (Applause.)
But such progress is not inevitable. It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?
So let’s talk about the future, and four big questions that I believe we as a country have to answer — regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress.
First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy? (Applause.)
Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change? (Applause.)
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman? (Applause.)
And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?
Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. (Applause.) We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history. (Applause.) More than 14 million new jobs, the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s, an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. (Applause.) That’s just part of a manufacturing surge that’s created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters. (Applause.)
Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction. (Applause.) Now, what is true — and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious — is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit; changes that have not let up.
Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated. Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and they face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise. Companies have less loyalty to their communities. And more and more wealth and income is concentrated at the very top.
All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.
For the past seven years,our goal has been a growing economy that works also better for everybody. We’ve made progress. But we need to make more. And despite all the political arguments that we’ve had these past few years, there are actually some areas where Americans broadly agree.
We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all and — (applause) — offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one. We should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids. (Applause.)
And we have to make college affordable for every American. (Applause.) No hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. And that’s good. But now, we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. (Applause.) Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year. (Applause.) It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)
But a great education isn’t all we need in this new economy. We also need benefits and protections that provide a basic measure of security.It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package for 30 years are sitting in this chamber. (Laughter.) For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers, in this new economy, they may have to retool and they may have to retrain. But they shouldn’t lose what they’ve already worked so hard to build in the process.
That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever. We shouldn’t weaken them; we should strengthen them. (Applause.) And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today. That, by the way, is what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when you lose a job, or you go back to school, or you strike out and launch that new business, you’ll still have coverage.Nearly 18 million people have gained coverage so far. (Applause.) And in the process, health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.
Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon. (Applause.) A little applause right there. Laughter.) Just a guess. But there should be other ways parties can work together to improve economic security. Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.
I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up. And I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children. (Applause.)
But there are some areas where we just have to be honest — it has been difficult to find agreement over the last seven years. And a lot of them fall under the category of what role the government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations. (Applause.) And it’s an honest disagreement, and the American people have a choice to make.
I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy.I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed. There is red tape that needs to be cut. (Applause.) There you go! Yes! (Applause But after years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense. (Applause.) Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. (Applause.) Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts. (Applause.)
The point is, I believe that inthis In new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.The rules should work for them. (Applause.) And I’m not alone in this. This year I plan to lift up the many businesses who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders. (Applause.) And I want to spread those best practices across America. That’s part of a brighter future. (Applause.)
In fact, it turns out many of our best corporate citizens are also our most creative. And this brings me to the second big question we as a country have to answer: How do we reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges?
Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. (Laughter.) We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight. And 12 years later, we were walking on the moon. (Applause.)
Now, that spirit of discovery is in our DNA.America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley, racing to shape a better world. (Applause.) That’s who we are.
And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit. We’ve protected an open Internet, and taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online. (Applause.) We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day. But we can do so much more.
Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. (Applause.) So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control. (Applause.) For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all. (Applause.)
Medical research is critical. We need the same level of commitment when it comes to developing clean energy sources. (Applause.) Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it. (Applause.)
But even if — even if the planet wasn’t at stake, even if 2014 wasn’t the warmest year on record — until 2015 turned out to be even hotter — why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future? (Applause.)
Listen, seven years ago, we made the single biggest investment in clean energy in our history. Here are the results. In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power. On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal — in jobs that pay better than average. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy — something, by the way, that environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. And meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth. (Applause.) Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either. (Applause.)
Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. We do them no favor when we don’t show them where the trends are going. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. And that way, we put money back into those communities, and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system. (Applause.)
Now, none of this is going to happen overnight. And, yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo. But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, the planet we’ll preserve — that is the kind of future our kids and our grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.
Climate change is just one of many issues where our security is linked to the rest of the world. And that’s why the third big question that we have to answer together is how to keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere there’s a problem.
I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. (Applause.) Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. (Applause.) It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. (Applause.) No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us. (Applause.)
I mean, it’s useful to level the set here, because when we don’t, we don’t make good decisions.
Now, as someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength.In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.
The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. Economic headwinds are blowing in from a Chinese economy that is in significant transition. Even as their economy severely contracts, Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria — client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit. And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality.
It’s up to us, the United States of America, to help remake that system. And to do that well it means that we’ve got to set priorities.
Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. (Applause.) Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.
But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. (Applause.) That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions. (Applause.) We just need to call them what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed. (Applause.)
And that’s exactly what we’re doing. For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL’s financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.
If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote. (Applause.) Take a vote. But the American people should know that with or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, just ask Osama bin Laden. (Applause.) Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell. When you come after Americans, we go after you. (Applause.) And it may take time, but we have long memories, and our reach has no limits. (Applause.)
Our foreign policy has to be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, even without al Qaeda, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.
We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it’s done with the best of intentions. (Applause.) That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now. (Applause.)
Fortunately, there is a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.
That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.
That’s why we built a global coalition, with sanctions and principled diplomacy, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war. (Applause.)
That’s how we stopped the spread of Ebola in West Africa. (Applause.) Our military, our doctors, our development workers — they were heroic; they set up the platform that then allowed other countries to join in behind us and stamp out that epidemic. Hundreds of thousands, maybe a couple million lives were saved.
That’s how we forged a Trans-Pacific Partnership to open markets, and protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia. It cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America, which will then support more good jobs here in America. With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do. You want to show our strength in this new century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it. It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)
Let me give you another example. Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, and set us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations — (applause) — opened the door to travel and commerce, positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. (Applause.) So if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere, recognize that the Cold War is over — lift the embargo. (Applause.)
The point is American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists — or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling. Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as a part of our national security, not something separate, not charity.
When we lead nearly 200 nations to the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, yes, that helps vulnerable countries, but it also protects our kids. When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend on. When we help African countries feed their people and care for the sick — (applause) — it’s the right thing to do, and it prevents the next pandemic from reaching our shores. Right now, we’re on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. That’s within our grasp. (Applause.) And we have the chance to accomplish the same thing with malaria — something I’ll be pushing this Congress to fund this year. (Applause.)
That’s American strength. That’s American leadership. And that kind of leadership depends on the power of our example. That’s why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. (Applause.) It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies. (Applause.) There’s a better way. (Applause.)
And that’s why we need to reject any politics — any politics — that targets people because of race or religion. (Applause.) Let me just say this. This is not a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith.
His Holiness, Pope Francis, told this body from the very spot that I’m standing on tonight that “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.” When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. (Applause.) It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country. (Applause.)
“We the People.” Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union. And that brings me to the fourth, and maybe the most important thing that I want to say tonight.
The future we want — all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.
A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country — different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any President’s — alone. There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base. I know; you’ve told me. It’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. And a lot of you aren’t enjoying being trapped in that kind of rancor.
But that means if we want a better politics — and I’m addressing the American people now — if we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. (Applause.) Let a bipartisan group do it. (Applause.)
We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections. (Applause.) And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution — because it’s a problem. And most of you don’t like raising money. I know; I’ve done it. (Applause.) We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. (Applause.) We need to modernize it for the way we live now. (Applause.) This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.
But I can’t do these things on my own. (Applause.) Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.
What I’m suggesting is hard. It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.
We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. (Applause.) We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.
It is not easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
And they’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention; they don’t seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing. I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you, the American people. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding.
I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off.
I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late at night to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early, and maybe with some extra supplies that she bought because she knows that that young girl might someday cure a disease.
I see it in the American who served his time, and bad mistakes as a child but now is dreaming of starting over — and I see it in the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters — and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe. (Applause.)
I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him till he can run a marathon, the community that lines up to cheer him on.
It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught. (Applause.)
I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his vote for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count — because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.
That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (Applause.) That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.
And that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong. (Applause.)
Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address evoked the Obama of 2008 and 2009 – eager, enthusiastic, passionate. The themes were echoes of all his major speeches – evoking the values that make America great, the vision of what American could be, and the path we can take to toward that “more perfect union.”
“Progress is not inevitable,” he said. “It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?”
And again, he said, “The future we want — all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
Instead of focusing on the past, he looked to the future, clear-eyed and realistic, armed with the experience of seven years as President and Commander-in-Chief, and listed “four big questions that I believe we as a country have to answer — regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress:
“First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
“Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
“Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
“And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”
He began so matter-of-factly, listing the transformational accomplishments of his administration tripping off the tongue – rescuing the economy from the brink of collapse, record increases in private sector jobs creation (more than 14 million new jobs), cutting the unemployment rate in half, reducing the federal deficit by 70%, raising the percentage of Americans with health care to record levels, raising America’s standing in the world and leading on an unprecedented Climate Agreement signed by 196 nations. But he ended with a fascinating admission of regret and his own failing at the corrosive partisanship, a warning of threat to the body politic and a call to action by the American people to rescue their democracy before it is too late.
“Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
“Too many Americans feel that way right now,” he said, confessing “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”
In fact, throughout his presidency, he has reached out, pleaded for the “good ideas” that Republicans might want to offer instead of just tearing down – immigration reform, health care (that’s why it took 18 months), gun safety, climate action. The list goes on and on and on.
“But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any President’s — alone. There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber, good people who would like to see more cooperation, would like to see a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the imperatives of getting elected, by the noise coming out of your base. I know; you’ve told me. It’s the worst-kept secret in Washington. And a lot of you aren’t enjoying being trapped in that kind of rancor.”
But the signs weren’t good, because throughout his speech, with the exception of a shout-out to the troops and when he said, “I think outdated regulations that need to be changed,” the Republicans and House Speaker Paul Ryan sat steely throughout the speech, looking angry and disagreeable.
Looking passed the Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, cabinet members, military leaders that filled the Capitol, straight to the American people, he warned of the corruption of the political process, swallowed by rich donors and well-funded special interests, policies that make it harder, not easier to vote, and a system of gerrymandering where politicians get to select their voters, rather than voters selected their elected officials.
“But that means if we want a better politics — and I’m addressing the American people now — if we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. (Applause.) Let a bipartisan group do it. (Applause.)
“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections. (Applause.) And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution — because it’s a problem. And most of you don’t like raising money. I know; I’ve done it. (Applause.) We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. (Applause.) We need to modernize it for the way we live now. (Applause.) This is America: We want to make it easier for people to participate. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do just that.
“But I can’t do these things on my own. (Applause.) Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected, but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It depends on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.”
Evoking President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the impending threat of the military-industrial complex to democracy, Obama said:
“What I’m suggesting is hard. It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.
“We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want. It will not produce the security we want. But most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.
“So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. (Applause.) We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.”
Obama began the speech veritably skipping over the big legislative items that remain to be done, that a President would normally lay out for Congress in the State of the Union, but showed his recognition that a Republican Congress that has obstructed for seven years is unlikely to undertake anything significant in the mere 80 days the Republicans have scheduled to be in session during this election year. Still, they tripped over the tongue: immigration reform, criminal justice, gun safety, finally shuttering Guantanamo prison as he has tried to do since his first day in office. He held out some hope that the Republicans might support criminal justice reform and the Trans Pacific Partnership because these align with the Republicans’ corporate sponsors’ agenda and got big applause from the right when he said there are regulations that are outdated.
But then he came back with, “But after years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense. Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. (Applause.) Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts… in this In new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them.”
Then he proceeded to lay out a clear-eyed, realistic vision of what could happen, what must happen in light of the realities in which we live – framed by economic and social change that is happening whether or not people accept it, and, yes, terrorism.
Making it clear he does not intend to be a lame-duck president, frittering away the last year of his presidency, he listed specific programs that he hopes to see action on – the most significant being a “moonshot”-style initiative to marshal resources and research through the National Institutes of Health to cure cancer, naming Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son Beau Biden to cancer months ago, to head it.
Similarly, citing the dramatic gains in developing clean, renewable energy, he hinted at a carbon tax to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources, and move toward putting a price on carbon. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future — especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels.”
He listed a number of education initiatives including: providing Pre-K for all; offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes “that make them job-ready on day one”; “recruit and support more great teachers for our kids”; make college affordable for every American; provide two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student.
And noting that despite the improvements in the economy, so many Americans feel left behind and fearful of the changes swirling about them, he focused on easing the economic security of the beleaguered middle class, saying “we must strengthen, not weaken Social Security and Medicare.” Also, “make [retirement] benefits portable and protect against losses;” and “promote economic security by offering retraining in the event of job loss and wage insurance.”
Among the issues glossed over, clearly mindful that the Republican-dominated Congress would not act, was reference to gun violence prevention measures or the executive orders he announced in absence of any Congressional action. He simply included “protecting our kids from gun violence” in the list of unfinished items of concern. The camera did not even have time to pan to the empty chair left between First Lady Michelle Obama and Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy, left for the countless thousands victims of gun violence.
“We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them,” the White House stated prior to the address. “To tell their stories. To honor their memory. To support the Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the terrible ripple effect of gun violence – survivors who’ve had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life. To remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
He gave a steely, no-nonsense declaration of America’s military strength and leadership in the world, and its commitment to defend Americans and prosecute terrorists.
“No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.
“I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not primarily because of some looming superpower out there, and certainly not because of diminished American strength. In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”
But he affirmed the success of the so-called Obama Doctrine, elevating diplomacy over a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later strategy, particularly with the Iran nuclear agreement and in opening up Cuba after 50 years of fruitless isolation that did not produce a democratic Cuba, and glossed over the success in leading the way to a historic Climate Action Agreement signed by 196 countries.
And with a clear arrow sent in the direction of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and the extreme rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates, he warned, “But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”
Obama could have crowed more than he did in saying, “With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.” By some reports, ISIL has lost control over 40% of the territory it had held at its peak, but Obama did not mention this.
But he challenged Congress to act instead of criticize: “If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote.”
“The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.”
“The point is American leadership in the 21st century is not a choice between ignoring the rest of the world — except when we kill terrorists — or occupying and rebuilding whatever society is unraveling. Leadership means a wise application of military power, and rallying the world behind causes that are right. It means seeing our foreign assistance as a part of our national security, not something separate, not charity.”
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, 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. It betrays who we are as a country.”
Obama’s State of the Union message, ending with the riveting phrase so well placed at the end – resounded like the Obama of 2008 and 2009 – the themes and tones of unity and his confidence in the spirit of the American people and the values that underlie this nation still dominant, his passion, energy and enthusiasm for his role as President and Commander-in-Chief roaring to the surface. But instead of being overtaken by cynicism under the unprecedented personal attacks and disrespect he has been shown since the very first State of the Union address in 2009, Obama seemed incredibly relaxed and comfortable in his own skin, still filled with optimism, excitement, if sharpened by his experience:
He described America’s spirit of discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship, its diversity and cherished freedom.
“That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. (Applause.) That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.
“And that’s why I stand here confident as I have ever been that the State of our Union is strong.”
For the President’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, the individuals who will be seated in the guest box of First Lady Michelle Obama are intended to represent the progress Barack Obama has made since he first delivered this speech seven years ago – “from the brink of a second Great Depression and two costly wars to an economy that is growing and renewed American leadership abroad.”
“Their stories – of struggle and success – highlight where we have been and where America is going in the future, building on the best of what our country has to offer,” the White House said. “he guests personify President Obama’s time in office and most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous.”
But one seat is being left vacant for all the victims of gun violence – to dramatize what has been the most frustrating unfulfilled goal of his administration. Last week, the President took a series of commonsense steps to help reduce gun violence in America and make our communities safer.
“We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them,” the White House stated. “To tell their stories. To honor their memory. To support the Americans whose lives have been forever changed by the terrible ripple effect of gun violence – survivors who’ve had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life. To remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
The invitees who will sit in the box with the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday include:
Sue Ellen Allen (Scottsdale, AZ)
Criminal Justice Reform
Sue Ellen Allen knows the difficulties that formerly incarcerated individuals face after prison – both as the co-founder of a nonprofit helping inmates reenter society and as a former inmate starting over after her release in 2009. Her organization, Gina’s Team, supports women in Arizona prisons and upon release, gives them the resources they need and teaches them how give back to the community. Named for her cellmate in prison who died in incarceration, Sue Ellen started Gina’s Team with Gina’s parents in an effort to provide women a path out of prison, back into the community and out of additional trouble with the law. She wrote the President to thank him for the launch of a new pilot program that enables incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and to encourage a national dialog that includes women in prison reform. Sue Ellen is proud to be accompanied to Washington by Gina’s mother, Diane, whose daughter gave her a renewed purpose in life.
Gloria Balenski (Schaumburg, IL)
Like many American families during the Great Recession, Gloria and Norb Balenski faced real economic struggles: Gloria lost her job after 34 years at a major electronics company, the money they invested for their son’s college dried up in the free-falling stock market, and Norb’s job at Chevrolet was threatened when the auto industry cratered. But the actions the President took when he came into office to pull us away from the brink of depression and to secure quality, affordable health care for millions of Americans, helped safeguard Norb’s job and his health insurance. And just in time as he suffered a major heart attack in 2012, racking up $400,000 in medical bills. Gloria and Norb wrote the President a letter last year thanking him for the economic priorities he pursued at a time of turmoil, which Gloria credits with helping her family to bounce back. Today, Gloria is retired, her husband has recovered, and her son recently married, has a job and purchased a new home.
Jennifer Bragdon (Austin, TX)
Community College Student
Jennifer Bragdon’s story showcases how community colleges can adapt to the needs of students. Jennifer, 42, and her husband, George, work full time to pay for bills and provide childcare for their one-year-old daughter, and Jennifer’s other responsibilities restrict her to one class at a time. Even though she won’t graduate for a few more years, she plans to complete her degree and become a middle school teacher. She enrolled in a new developmental math course at Austin Community College (ACC) after being out of a traditional classroom for more than 20 years, and has now successfully completed her college algebra requirements. In March, Dr. Biden met Jennifer at ACC and learned about the campus’ high-tech learning lab that provides more than 600 computer stations for individualized learning and small group sessions, highlighting the ways community colleges are providing flexibility and support for students to stay on track to earn their degrees. Jennifer works as a massage therapist and lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
Edith Childs (Greenwood, SC)
Greenwood County Councilmember
When then-Senator Obama visited a June 2007 campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina, a small group of 38 supporters captured the enthusiasm and drive that defined the election. And Edith Childs, a Greenwood County Councilmember, summed up the passion with a simple chant: “Fired up! Ready to go!” When she noticed Senator Obama’s surprise at a fairly small gathering, she sought to energize the crowd calling out, “Fired up!” to which they replied “Fired up!” “Ready to go!” she countered. This call and response captivated larger and larger crowds, and became widely recognized as the unofficial slogan of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. In December 2009, President Obama invited Edith to the White House for the first holiday celebration hosted by the Obamas in recognition of her ability to distill the enthusiasm that helped carry him to the White House. Edith lives in Greenwood with her husband, Charles. They have three children and six grandchildren.
Cynthia “Cindy” K. Dias (Las Vegas, NV)
Veteran, Veterans Homelessness Advocate
Cynthia “Cindy” K. Dias is a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War in a hospital ship as a registered nurse. She managed care for wounded soldiers, and worked alongside the Chaplin as the designated official to provide notification and care for families of wounded and deceased officers. After her service, she worked as a registered nurse in Florida and Louisiana and eventually moved to Las Vegas, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and lost her job before eventually also losing her home. She found a place to live at Veterans Village, a non-profit working with the city of Las Vegas to provide resources for homeless veterans. She now volunteers with Veterans Village, and she works to care and advocate for veterans in the city. In November 2015, Las Vegas announced it had housed every homeless veteran as part of the Administration’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. This challenge was launched in 2014 by First Lady Michelle Obama as part the First Lady and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative.
Mark Davis (Washington, D.C.)
Small Business Owner
A former basketball player in Washington, D.C., Mark Davis was inspired by the President’s focus on climate change to do something to protect the planet and help his community. Mark took classes, got certified, and started a small business that trains low-income individuals to install solar panels and prepares community members for local green tech jobs. Mark’s company, WDC Solar, is growing, profitable, and giving back. Since 2012, WDC has installed more than 125 solar systems in D.C. at no cost to homeowners with good credit through tax credits and private funds. One of Mark’s proudest moments was working with D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility to start a low-income program that has provided funding to install panels on more than 300 homes. And once the panels are installed, the extra power results in a profit every month – money going back into the community he’s working to transform. In 2016 he plans to implement similar programs in New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Cary Dixon (Huntington, WV)
Mother, Opioid Reform Advocate
In October, Cary Dixon joined the President at a community forum in Charleston, West Virginia, on the opioid epidemic and spoke candidly about the struggles of having an adult child with a substance use disorder. Prescription drug abuse and heroin use have taken a heartbreaking toll on too many Americans and their families, while straining law enforcement and treatment programs. The President believes that resources should be put toward preventing substance use disorders from developing and getting effective treatment to those who need it. As many families have learned, substance use disorders do not discriminate and Cary has turned her experience into action, speaking up for those who are often too stigmatized to say anything. “For too long, we’ve been silent,” she told the panel. “And I think that is holding us back. We need to open our voices so that people don’t feel ashamed. This is a disease. It is a sickness.”
Lydia Doza (Klamath Falls, OR // Anchorage, AK)
College Student, STEM Advocate
Originally from Anchorage, Lydia Doza’s upbringing in three Alaskan tribes – Inupiaq, Tsimshian, and Haida – as well as her grandmother Joanne’s influence taught her the value of an education and the importance of mentorship. She discovered her passion for engineering early on through her high school robotics team, and, through her involvement with the Administration’s Generation Indigenous initiative to support Native American youth, she’s engaging with rural youth in disciplines across the STEM fields to apply their skills and education. Lydia, 24, is currently pursuing a degree in software engineering technology at Oregon Tech, where she’s also an event organizer for Engineering Ambassadors, which focuses on outreach to kids as young as three years old through high school to encourage a career in engineering. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, Lydia hopes to work full time as a software engineer while continuing her involvement in the community to promote the importance of STEM and higher education. Lydia ultimately hopes to pursue a master’s degree in data science and encourage more women to go into STEM. Lydia’s mother, Maria Graham, and two brothers, Dorien and Leland, live in Wasilla, Alaska.
Refaai Hamo (Troy, MI)
Growing up in Syria, Refaai Hamo lived what seemed to be the kind of life associated with the American Dream – the son of a farmer and housewife, he worked construction at night to pay his way through college on his way to a PhD, married his college sweetheart and built a family together. This life and happiness changed forever when a Syrian government anti-personnel missile tore through the complex Refaai designed and where his family lived; in total seven of his family members died, including his wife and one daughter. After the bombing, he fled to Turkey but couldn’t make a living without a residence permit and was diagnosed with stomach cancer in a country where he couldn’t seek treatment without insurance or health benefits. After two years in Turkey, he received refugee status to move to Troy, Michigan. Refaai’s story was featured on the website Humans of New York, where he received an outpouring of support and sympathy – including from the President. The President wrote in response to his story, “Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.” Refaai arrived in Detroit with his three daughters and son on December 18, and like other families displaced from their homeland, they hope to find a new one in America.
Lisa Jaster (Houston, TX)
Major, U.S. Army Reserve, Ranger School Graduate
Major Lisa Jaster became the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the Ranger School, the elite leadership course of the Army. The 37-year-old engineer and mother of two is only the third woman to graduate from Ranger School, which began including female soldiers last year following an Administration directive to lift the ban on women in combat. Lisa graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 2000. She was on active duty for seven years and deployed in support of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom before leaving active duty in 2007 to work at Shell Oil Co. In 2012, Lisa returned to service, joining the U.S. Army Reserve, and took a leave of absence from Shell last April to pursue Ranger School. She is married to a Marine with whom she has two children, aged seven and three.
Mayor Mark Luttrell (Shelby County, TN)
Shelby County Mayor
Throughout his career in public service, Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell has built partnerships with local, state and federal agencies, and his unique background has focused him on criminal justice reform. As mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, he helped create specialty courts for drug, mental health, and veterans’ cases to provide resources for effective rehabilitation instead of ineffectual incarceration. The county also put in place measures to reduce recidivism by streamlining and pooling resources to better provide formerly incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to re-enter society. Afterward, he was appointed as Director of Corrections for Shelby County, Tennessee and served there until he was elected Sheriff in 2002 and subsequently as Mayor in 2010. Mayor Lutrell and his wife, Pat, have three children and six grandchildren.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Hartford, CT)
Currently in his second term as Governor of Connecticut, Dannel P. Malloy has pursued many of the progressive priorities that the President laid out to make America stronger. From his criminal justice reforms, including a “Second Chance Society” initiative that emphasizes successfully reintegrating individuals with nonviolent offenses into society, to common-sense gun safety laws following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, Gov. Malloy has balanced important social reforms with strong economic priorities: Connecticut led America as the first state in the country to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave. Gov. Malloy also oversaw the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act, driving down the state’s uninsured rate to historic lows and delivered the best job growth since the 1990s. Gov. Malloy and his wife, Cathy, have three sons, Dannel, Ben and Sam.
Braeden Mannering (Bear, DE)
After attending the White House Kids’ “State Dinner” as part of Let’s Move! and hearing the President and First Lady’s challenge for kids to make a difference in their own communities, Braeden Mannering, 12, was inspired to act. Braeden started his own nonprofit, Brae’s Brown Bags (3B), which provides healthy food to homeless and low-income individuals in his community. His mission is also to raise awareness about the problems of food insecurity and poverty, and to empower and inspire youth across the nation to become part of the solution. To date, Braeden has activated more than 2,600 volunteers, provided more than 4,500 “brown bags” of healthy food, and raised more than $52,000 for hunger relief. He co-hosted the first “hunger conference” in Delaware to include youth, and he continues to spread his mission in Delaware and other states, speaking at schools, conferences, and legislative sessions. Braeden is in sixth grade at Gauger-Cobbs Middle School and lives in Bear, Delaware with his mother Christy, stepfather Brian, brother Finnegan and sister Amelia. Braeden’s father, Michael, his fiancée Jennifer and their son Michael live in Middletown, Delaware.
Satya Nadella (Bellevue, WA)
Satya Nadella is Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, a position he’s held since February 2014 at the company he joined in 1992. Microsoft has been a leader in expanding access to computer science in K-12 classrooms, and in Teach.org, a private public partnership to increase awareness of and support for the teaching profession. In September, the company announced a new $75 million effort to expand computer science education, including opportunities for engineers from Microsoft and other companies with teachers to team-teach computer science. In October 2015, under Satya’s leadership, Microsoft increased its paid leave benefits by eight weeks and now includes 20 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks for non-birth parents. Originally from Hyderabad, India, Satya received a master’s in computer science and a master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and University of Chicago, respectively. Satya and his wife, Anupuma, have three children.
Jim Obergefell (Cincinnati, OH)
Jim Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the landmark marriage equality case Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled same-sex couples nationwide have the Constitutional right to marry. In 2013, Jim married his partner of 20 years, John, who was dying of ALS. Their marriage – performed in Maryland – wasn’t recognized in their home state of Ohio, setting off a legal proceeding over whether the marriage should be recognized under Ohio law and listed on John’s death certificate. While they won the initial legal battle, Ohio appealed, and their case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which declared marriage equality the law of the land. Jim considers himself an accidental activist, one who became entwined in a political statement larger than himself – a statement of equality and dignity that Americans have been fighting for since this nation’s founding – and he now remains committed to ensuring the civil rights for all Americans.
Chief Kathleen O’Toole (Seattle, WA)
Police Chief, Community Policing
Since 2014, Chief Kathleen O’Toole has led the Seattle Police Department in developing its approach to community policing, and her focus on improving officer morale, implementing new policies and optimizing department resources has received national attention. Under her leadership, the department tested a six-month pilot program for body-worn police cameras focused on public transparency, and the Department of Justice awarded the department a $600,000 grant to expand the program. Last year, the Seattle Police Department presented its policies at the White House Police Data Initiative as part of its renewed emphasis on accountability and transparency. Prior to Kathleen’s role as Chief, she served as Chief Inspector of the Gardia Síochána Inspectorate in Ireland, responsible for developing best practices of the Irish police service and rose the ranks of Massachusetts law enforcement, finishing as the first female Boston police commissioner in 2004. Chief O’Toole is married to a retired police detective, Dan O’Toole, and they have a daughter, Meghan.
Ryan Reyes (San Bernardino, CA)
Ryan Reyes’s partner Larry “Daniel” Kaufman was one of the 14 victims of the December 2 terrorist attack at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. Daniel was a job trainer for adults with developmental disabilities at the Coffee N More shop, and he was on his lunch break at the time of the attack. He is credited with saving the lives of four people when he warned others, urging them to safety, before being shot and killed in the attack. Since Daniel’s death, Ryan, 32, has been vocal about the need for tolerance of all and rejection of the radicalized. “I speak for both Daniel and myself when I say that this attack should NOT encourage people to treat Muslims any differently than they would anyone else,” he wrote to media in the aftermath of the attack. “The twisted actions and beliefs of a few should not be used to view the majority.”
Ronna Rice (Greeley, CO)
Small Business Owner
A family-operated company since 1924 across five generations, Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey specializes in American raw and unfiltered honey for export globally. As CEO, Ronna Rice leads the business. The company has expanded across the U.S. and around the world, most recently in Japan, South Korea and China, allowing the company to grow domestically and hire more employees. Rice’s Lucky Clover Honey has export sales per year of about $500,000, and the 15 jobs in the company are supported by those exports. The company is based in Greeley, Colorado, and Ronna runs the company with her husband Jim, their three children, their son-in-law and a family friend.
Cedric Rowland (Chicago, IL)
Cedric Rowland is the lead navigator for Near North Health Service Corporation in Chicago. Working with people to find the best plans available at a price they can afford, Affordable Care Act navigators help people across the country take advantage of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, and are part of the success of the law. Since November 1, 2015, nearly 11.3 million consumers – more than 3 million of them new customers – have signed up for health care in this open enrollment alone. Our uninsured rate is at the lowest rate on record, coverage is affordable, and we’re seeing a historic slowdown in the growth of health care costs. Cedric’s role in this progress can be seen in the story of Stephanie Lucas. Stephanie has diabetes and no longer qualified for Medicaid, but with Cedric’s help she transitioned to a Marketplace plan that met her needs and let her keep her doctor at a price she could afford – $62 a month after tax credits. Stephanie will watch the State of the Union from the White House. She thanks Cedric, and navigators like him, for helping Americans enroll in quality, affordable health care under the Affordable Care Act. Cedric is a new father of a baby girl.
Naveed Shah (Springfield, VA)
U.S. Army Veteran
Naveed Shah, originally from Saudi Arabia, grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Springfield, Virginia after immigrating to the United States with his Pakistani parents. Like many immigrants who arrive here as children, Naveed noted that his birth country felt foreign while America is home. The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 marked the ultimate distortion of Naveed’s faith – something he set out to combat, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2006. He served our country for four years and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Naveed returned to his hometown in 2010 for college and to work with veterans groups assisting in the transition between military and civilian life. When not volunteering, Naveed works as a real estate agent in Virginia and lives with his fiancé, Ashley, and 7-year-old son, Yusuf.
Earl Smith (Austin, TX)
Earl Smith first met then-Senator Barack Obama in February 2008 on the campaign trail at the Austin Hyatt Regency where he worked as the director of security. Encountering him in an elevator, Earl gave the Senator a military patch he had worn serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam that sustained 10,041 casualties and received 13 Medals of Honor. Smith had held onto his patch for 40 years – from Vietnam, to his 1977 pardon after three years in prison for a wrongful conviction, to global work in the hospitality industry – before parting with it in the elevator that day. Then-Senator Obama carried the patch in his pocket for the rest of the campaign, but Earl had no idea of the impact his story had on the President until he heard it directly from him in the Oval Office in 2013. The patch will be archived in the Obama Library – a reminder of the people who made up the movement that led the President to the White House. Earl and his wife of nearly 35 years, Claudia, have two children.
Spencer Stone (Sacramento, CA)
Staff Sergeant, U.S. Air Force
While on a Paris-bound train with his childhood friends Anthony Sadler and U.S. Army Specialist Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone made headlines worldwide in August when the three Americans prevented a potentially catastrophic act of terrorism. Spencer, his two friends and a fourth British passenger subdued a gunman armed with a box cutter, a pistol, a can of lighter fluid, and an assault rifle with 300 rounds of ammunition as he tried to open fire aboard the crowded train. While restraining the suspect who repeatedly slashed with the box cutter, Spencer incurred injury to his neck and hand, nearly losing his finger, and upon return to the United States received a Purple Heart, the Airman’s Medal, and a promotion to Staff Sergeant. The President invited the three friends to the White House where he thanked them in person for saving so many lives and for representing the U.S. with heroism and humility. The 23-year-old EMT hopes to continue his work in medicine and lives in Sacramento, California.
Oscar Vazquez (Fort Worth, TX)
Veteran, DREAMer, STEM leader
Like many DREAMers, Oscar came to the United States as a child in search of a better life. From age 12 when he moved from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, Oscar excelled in the classroom. He excelled as a STEM student at Carl Hayden High School and led an unlikely and inspiring story of a group of under-resourced Hispanic high school students who took on an MIT team in an underwater robotics competition and won. That opportunity led to a college education in the STEM field, earning a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Arizona State University in May 2009. But without legal status, he couldn’t secure a job to provide for his new wife and newborn child. He returned to Mexico to apply for a visa, and with help from Sen. Dick Durbin, who spoke from the Senate Floor about Oscar’s case, he was granted a green card in August 2010. Six months later, Oscar enlisted in the Army to serve the country he loves and calls home. Oscar served one tour in Afghanistan and is now a proud U.S. citizen. He now works for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways as a business analyst in a web app development team, and is a passionate advocate on behalf on expanding STEM opportunities for Latino and other under-represented youth.
Information about these guests and news about the State of the Union is available at WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU.