Every year since George Washington gave an address in 1790 in New York City (then the provisional capital of the U.S.), America’s presidents have given an annual message to Congress about the “State of the Union.”
Since Woodrow Wilson, the speech has been delivered in person to a joint session of Congress. The practice arises from a command given to the president in the Constitution of the United States in Article II: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The president usually outlines his legislative agenda and his priorities for the future; however, with the advent of radio and television, it has become more of a direct message to the American people — often designed to sway voters in an election year.
In last year’s speech, the president outlined many goals: from education and tax reform to reconstruction of America’s infrastructure. Little was said about unemployment or the national debt — not to mention the terrible costs of wars in the Middle East. One could have expected the leader of the federal government to level with the American people about the serious problems facing the nation and the tough decisions and sacrifices that might be necessary to achieve solutions.
The middle class in America is in peril. After the mortgage meltdown, and despite the bailouts of Wall Street and the automakers, many have lost their jobs. The fact that some 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed and about 45 million are now receiving food stamps is witness to the deterioration of the middle class, whose members usually paid their taxes and their bills regularly and were the backbone of America’s economy.
A depleted middle class spells danger for the future of the nation and its ability to fund entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and federal programs of all kinds — even homeland security and national defense.
President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address on Jan. 24 was described by one media commentator as a “laundry list.” The president himself said near the end of the speech that many people think “nothing will get done” because Washington “is broken.”
Thus, the proposed “jobs corps for veterans,” raising the taxes on millionaires to “at least 30 percent” in order to promote “fairness,” federal refinancing of mortgages and his “all of the above” strategy to develop offshore energy sources, as well as domestic natural gas and “clean energy,” may simply be a wish list unlikely to be achieved this year.
Commentator David Gergen qualified the State of the Union address as Obama’s “agenda for a second term” and suggested the president has a much higher approval rating for his handling of foreign affairs than for his domestic policies. “Obama got Osama” could be his most effective campaign slogan.
Recently, former President Jimmy Carter appeared on the Piers Morgan interview show on CNN. The one time commander of a nuclear submarine was asked to rate President Obama’s achievements in office. Even though Carter said Obama has met very few of his goals and is faced with high unemployment, foreign wars and an expanding national debt, he also said that the incumbent Democratic president would defeat any Republican challenger.
Since 1966, the State of the Union speech has been followed on television with a rebuttal by a member of the political party opposing the president. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan gave the Republican response in 2011. He was of the opinion that the government’s “stimulus” programs have failed, and if our society is left to depend on bureaucracy for innovation, America’s best century will be our past century.
This year, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said the state of the union is “grave.” The national debt has increased by several trillions, and unemployment remains near 9 percent (closer to 15 percent if those who have stopped looking were added in). He proposed a simple tax with lower rates, less government regulation, and reform of entitlement programs in order to reduce spending and get the economy working again.
While the political pundits trade gibes, and the candidates debate, urban interests continue to conflict with rural, red states with blue, rich with poor, pro-life with pro-choice, big government with free enterprise, immigrant amnesty with deportation and internationalism with minding our own business.
Thus, the “union” will likely remain divided by political, social, religious, economic, ethnic and other differences for the forseeable future.
Dan Norvell retired to Danville after a career in educational publishing and more than 20 years living and working overseas.