2012 State of the Union Address

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January 26, 2012 · by Wes · Spark Notes

January 25, 2012

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President Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union Address (SOTU) last night on Tuesday, January 24, 2012. After a year filled with attempts to improve the condition and prospects of the middle class and the ensuing partisan arguments about how to do so, the President did not stray from the message he has developed and delivered in speeches nationwide in recent weeks and months. He and his proxies have focused on income inequality and his plan to help middle class families get “back on their feet.” In Obama’s 2011 address, education played a prominent role; this year, it was folded into the third of the four main pillars of his speech—manufacturing, energy, worker training, and American values.

The President kicked off his speech by discussing a milestone for his Administration and the country: Americans are no longer fighting in Iraq. He quickly moved to address the largest challenge his Administration and the country faces—the economy—and challenged the Congress to collective action to strengthen and build a robust economy where “responsibility pays off and hard work is rewarded.” Obama urged Congress to work with him to rebuild an economy where “everyone gets their fair shot, everyone pays their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.”

To build such an economy, the President outlined what he considers to be the key ingredients, including a skilled American workforce. “There are job openings, when millions of Americans are out of work,” that cannot be filled because the country simply does not have qualified workers for these positions. He called for the training of 2 million Americans with the skills that will lead directly to a job. Community colleges are the place for such action, and the President requested they be provided the resources necessary to become “community career centers.”

The President did not stop there stating, “Our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier.” Offering a new nationwide policy to increase the country’s high school graduation rate, he declared, “We also know that when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state—every state—requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

The President also highlighted initiatives and programs already started by the Department of Education that he considers a success. At the top of his list was the Race to the Top program and other initiatives initially funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, the 2009 economic stimulus bill). Obama stated, “For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we've convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that's happened in a generation.” The President expressed his desire to “offer schools a deal” to let go of the status quo, and provide them with the resources necessary to keep and retain quality teachers and “reward the best ones.” In referring to this new program proposal, he said, “In return, [we will] grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn.” In addition, he argued that through the reform of teacher education programs, carving out steps for career advancement for teachers that are tied to performance and providing leadership opportunities for teachers, this new initiative would revamp the profession and expand an established program favored by the Administration—the Teacher Incentive Fund.

While not anticipating the announcement of this new program proposal, the education community did expect that the President would discuss the cost of college, and he did. Acknowledging the daunting task that families face to pay for college, he implored Congress to act and prevent a doubling of interest rates on federal student loans (from 3.4 to 6.8% on subsidized Stafford Loans) that will take effect July 1, 2012 and prevent the expiration of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which will disappear at the end of the year. Obama also called for the creation of more work study jobs in the next five years so students can “earn their way through college.” He did note that colleges have a responsibility in this effort, emphatically stating, “We can’t keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition.” He asked for states to do their part by funding university budgets, but added that all colleges and universities should be working to keep costs down. The President put colleges and universities “on notice that if costs of college keep going up, funding from the federal government will go down.”

Saying that “people come to America to attend school, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home,” the President also essentially called for the passage of the “DREAM Act,” although he did not explicitly name the controversial legislation in his speech. He also pleaded with Congress to acknowledge the benefits of basic research funded by the federal government claiming “innovation begins here – don’t gut these investments in our budget and let other countries win the race for the future.”

Every element of his speech supported one of his final points—the need for unity. The President closed his speech by insisting that the political parties “lower the temperature in this town” in order to enact true reforms and called for an end to the notion that “the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas.”

During the course of the hour-long speech tweets flooded the internet, and MSNBC claimed the President’s message on education received the largest outpouring of tweets. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took part in the SOTU tweeting frenzy tweeting, “Like the Pres, I believe ed is key to a strong America. Provide states w/flexibility, support teachers & keep college costs down.”

During the speech, the White House’s website (http://www.whitehouse.gov) was populated with fact sheets and other resources, including a blueprint that outlines the new competitive program that would bring states, districts, teachers and unions together to reform the teaching profession. A Blueprint for an America Built to Last outlines the Administration’s series of ideas of how to “build an economy that works for everyone, one that will bring about a new era of American manufacturing and promote homegrown and alternative energy sources,” and includes a general outline of the suggested reforms for the teaching profession. (more at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/blueprint_for_an_america_built_to_last.pdf )

REPUBLICAN REACTION

The Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, opened the Republican response with accolades for the President’s relentless pursuit of 9/11 aggressors and even for the strong example his marriage sets for this nation. That is where the compliments ended. Acknowledging what the President made clear in his speech, that while the genesis of the economic crisis cannot be attributed to this Administration, Governor Daniels stated that the at-best sluggish recovery from the crisis over the past three years can be attributed to what he considers to be the President’s belief in the virtue and role of big government. Daniels stated, “He [the President] seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. In fact, it works the other way: a government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it.”

Daniels called for a simpler tax system with fewer loopholes and lower rates while also eliminating costly government regulations that impede the hiring of skilled workers. He also called for sincere entitlement reform, a process that would result in affordable programs “devoted to those most in need.” Daniels rejected the notion that Republicans will serve as objectionists in Congress, but rather “Republicans will speak for those who believe in the dignity and capacity of the individual citizen; who believe that government is meant to serve the people rather than supervise them; who trust Americans enough to tell them the plain truth about the fix we are in, and to lay before them a specific, credible program of change big enough to meet the emergency we are facing.”

CONCLUSION

Each year, the SOTU address is typically followed by the release of the President’s budget proposal the following week. This year, the FY 2013 budget request will be delivered to Congress on Monday, February 13, 2012, one week after the regularly scheduled date. That request will provide the details behind the President’s plan to build a lasting economy. While the Administration has typically prioritized education in its annual policy agenda, education advocates should be prepared for proposed program eliminations and other belt-tightening actions in an effort to meet the parameters of the Budget Control Act. Rumors have been circulating in Washington that the Administration has been warning its allies that they will not like parts of the budget request.

Administration material on the 2012 State of the Union can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2012#progress, the text of the address can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address.

Furthermore, as follow up to the address, the White House has scheduled a series of live online events to help answer the public’s questions. To participate visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2012#sub2-tab.

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