Image courtesy CBSNews.com
Last night, President Obama gave his Constitutionally-mandated yearly State of the Union address to Congress and the American people.
Most people think that a speech is required before Congress, but Article II, Section 3 merely requires the President "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union". Up until President Wilson's time at the turn of the last century, the State of the Union was presented as a written report. Since then, and especially since the advent of television, the State of the Union has been a way for the President to trot out his policy directions for the year and present them, not only to Congress, but to the American people and the world.
This year was no different. President Obama's speech was filled with hope, opportunity, self-congratulation, outrages, and more than a little hyperbole.
What follows are ten things technical professionals need to know about the President's speech, and how his policies might affect you, your employer, and your family well into the future.
1. Overall theme: win the future
President Obama's overall theme was "Win the future." He used the phrase six times during his speech. Essentially, the idea is that we need to focus our attention on innovation and education, because that's how America will stay competitive into the future.
He generated a strong spark of applause with the line: "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."
My take: It's a key need, but the challenge is doing it in our society. To actually make this happen, the health care hostage crisis needs to be resolved. Our health care costs still make our products more expensive to produce than those of any other nation.
2. Innovation + Education = Jobs
President Obama gave good speech, and he focused specifically on fostering American innovation and education. He talked about better education programs and certain tax breaks for innovators.
One interesting line was, "We're the nation of Edison and the Wright Brothers, of Google and Facebook." Quite notably, he didn't mention either Apple or Microsoft. This may tie in with another line of his speech, "In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives, it's how we make our living."
My take: If you think about it, this is the biggest outrage of the speech, because America used to make our living by manufacturing. I liked how this sounds, but on further consideration, it feels like we're conceding manufacturing prowess to other nations. Since manufacturing fuels jobs, that's a serious problem.
He may not have mentioned Apple or Microsoft because both offshore manufacturing and Google and Facebook make their living solely by "innovation" (actually, advertising), but neither does manufacturing of any kind.
3. Clean energy
Another key line line in the speech was, "This is our generation's Sputnik moment." What the President was referring to was how the Soviets got into space first. Once Sputnik was launched, the U.S. decided we couldn't give the lead in space to the Soviets, so we invested hard into space innovation and won the moon race.
The connection in President Obama's message is his premise that "clean energy" is the Apollo project of our time and the budget Obama is submitting to Congress will allocate funding for clean energy research.
My take: If the budget passes, brush off those resumes and learn more about energy. This is a SmartPlanet moment, so go visit our sister site and do some reading up! Sadly, there was no Kennedy moment, nothing of the stirring, call-to-action power of "Before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."
4. Taking on oil companies and the lobbying bloodbath to come
President Obama wants to pay for clean energy innovation by "eliminating the billions of taxpayer dollars we give to oil companies." He said, "I don't know if you noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own."
My take: Clean energy is a necessary policy, but get ready for a bloodbath. Oil companies love them their subsidies and they will use those billions of dollars we give them against us to throw up a FUD and flak storm like you've never seen. If you thought health care was ugly, wait for this one!
You gotta hand it to Mr. Obama. He doesn't pick low-rent companies to turn into enemies. First, he tangled with the health care industry and now he's going after big oil. The downside: the health care industry effectively won, to the detriment of Americans. What are we going to give away to big oil in return for taking away their subsidies? It actually makes me shudder.
5. Reforming health care reform
I've written extensively about the ills of America's health care system. After years of hard research, it's become clear to me that America's health care system needs substantive reform, I've been of the opinion that the bill passed last year by Congress wasn't going to meet our needs.
President Obama appeared to reflect that sentiment with, "Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and let's move forward."
My take: Essentially, the President opened the door to GOP hacking the new health care law, but stated that the pre-existing condition garbage the health insurance industry has thrown at us over the years is off the table.
It wasn't a bad opening gambit to what promises to be a messy legislative and PR problem going into his reelection campaign. A good, constructive approach. Acknowledging current law needs fixing is also constructive. Tweaking and rejiggering legislation has happened with most of the major landmark legislation we've counted on over the years and, surprisingly, the stepwise refinement has often made the programs work better for Americans.
6. Immigration battle lines
President Obama seemed to be drawing the lines in the illegal immigration fight. He says he wants to work with Congress to deal with the illegal immigration issue once and for all, to secure our borders and handle the problem. But he says he wants to "stop expelling talented young people" who come from other countries (legally or not), got degrees here, and then take them back home.
My take: It's a point, but then those people compete against Americans right here for our jobs. Not sure I agree with this. We still have a long way to go with immigration issues, and one of the biggest is The failure of the H-1B visa program.
7. Dealing with the insane deficit
President Obama discussed the deficit in reasonably stark terms. The money line was, "We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable." President Obama's solution had a number of moving parts, including freezing government expansion and spending. He wants to review programs, cut "unnecessary" ones, combine agencies that duplicate each other, and generally clean house.
The deficit problem was also mentioned intelligently by the GOP's official response, delivered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). He said, "A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative. Here's why: we face a crushing burden of debt." He continued, "Endless borrowing is not a strategy. Spending cuts have to come first."
My take: Both parties recognize that the United States' current fiscal position is unsustainable. That's a good sign. Unfortunately, what we spend on is -- perhaps -- the key point of contention between both parties across the board.
I'm concerned we're going to see seesaw legislation, cuts here, boondoggles there, as Congress changes hands every few years. America needs to develop a long-term, intelligent policy on some of our most challenging issues, and then apply budget strategy to those issues. Instead, our politicians are generally up to their necks in pandering to their favorite interest groups.
8. A few outrages
Whenever a politician speaks, there are always a few outrages -- and President Obama's State of the Union address was no different. I found four that disturbed me greatly.
The first outrage was what I mentioned in Item 2 above, that President Obama seems to have ceded the ownership of manufacturing superiority to other nations in trade for, you know, Web 2.0 innovation. There was only one mention of manufacturing and it didn't come from President Obama. It didn't even come from the GOP response.
Instead, it came from the most unlikely source: the normally loony Michele Bachmann, who delivered an unprecedented Tea Party response to the President's address.
Her line: "We need to start making things again in this country."
When I start agreeing with Representative Bachmann, you know we're in Bizarro World.
The next outrage was a statement -- a joke really -- by President Obama. It was a throw-away line and it should have been thrown away. He was talking about his goal of high-speed rail systems, saying he'd like 80% of Americans to have access to high speed rail. Here's the line that infuriated me. Let me know if it angers you as much:
This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down.
"Without the pat-down" was a deeply inappropriate statement on the part of the President.
First, if Americans are traveling in volume via high-speed rail, then those systems will need as much security as air travel. But worse, the whole TSA groping intrusion was the result of Mr. Obama's own administration's policy, so to make this essentially a joke, with a chuckle after the "without a pat down" crack seems to imply he thinks it's worthy of humor.
Given that there was no other mention of the TSA or the indignities traveling Americans have been forced to tolerate by his administration, the statement was ill-advised and an undeniable outrage.
Here's another outrage. While Mr. Obama mentioned his goal of having "high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans" within five years, there was no mention of net neutrality or fairness in distributing Internet coverage. This is one of the FCC's single biggest challenges, and there was not a single mention of this issue amidst all the discussion of "innovation". Outrageous.
The final outrage came from Mr. Obama about energy policy. I've seen our recent politicians pull this crap and it's unacceptable. Here's the line: "By 2035, 80% of America's energy will come from clean energy sources."
That's 25 years from now. Setting a goal that far away is like peeing into the wind. Clean energy is a very good goal, but 25 years from now means it's our kids' problem and makes for a good speech point, but nothing more. If he'd said 2015 or even 2020, that'd be something we'd see as part of our real, near-term reality. But 2035? That's just words. We don't need words. Heck, we got to the moon in less time.
Sorry, Mr. President. We need change we can believe in. That's not change we can believe in.
9. A small, fleeting sign of a new maturity and sanity in Congress
I don't know if you've been following the whole Congressional seating fiasco leading up to the State of the Union. In light of the shootings earlier in the month and a desire to show some degree of bi-partisanship, many of our Congress-critters agreed to sit with members of the opposing party during the speech.
Normally, when the President gives a State of the Union speech, the Dems sit on one side of the aisle and the GOP sits on the other. This time, most of our elected officials mixed it up, and sat with members of the opposing party. Of course, some "winners" couldn't bring themselves to be near their loyal opposition and had to hide in their own corner. Hey, it's not like we expect our leaders to be mature, is it?
Then there were the opposition responses. First, it was quite a change to see the Tea Party get any play at all, and Michele Bachmann was clear that she didn't expect to supplant the GOP's official response.
That said, both Bachmann's and Ryan's response were actually reasonably tasteful, if a bit too long. While I'm certainly no fan of the Democrats, I've long come to think of most new GOPers as slightly nutty. It was refreshing to see this group actually behave moderately well. There weren't even any outbursts or interruptions of the President's speech.
It's only one night, but when it comes to our elected officials, I'll take any sanity and maturity I can find, even if the seating exercise is the sort of challenge normally presented to kindergarten students.
10. What's with Boehner's tie?
This was an interesting political moment for John Boehner. On one hand, he's been instrumental in some of the most partisan politics in years and you might think introducing Barack Obama would be something he might resent.
On the other hand, the fact that he's the person doing the introduction, stating he has the "high honor of introducing the President of the United States" means Boehner's achieved a career goal many have and very few achieve.
Whether he can keep that new position after wearing a very, very pink tie is anyone's guess. Okay, it's time for me to be slightly petty. Our nation's colors are red, white, and blue. So what's with Boehner's tie?
Looking forward to the rest of 2011
We have big issues and problems to solve here in America. I like some of what I heard the President say and was outraged by other things he said. Still other elements of his speech seemed like simple time-fillers.
This was not Barack Obama's best speech and I couldn't help, by the end, being left with the feeling that our President and our nation could have done better -- much better.