News & Politics

What Should Be in Obama's State of the Union

Obama has the next 10 months to demonstrate some progress or face a shellacking in the midterm elections this November. Here's what his speech should outline.

One year and one week ago today, on a blustery winter’s day, Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s 44th president and the first African American to hold the highest office in the land.

As he walked to the podium and raised his hand to take the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama carried with him the hopes of not only the progressive community, but a new coalition unifying younger voters, people of color and the growing urban “creative class." What unified them was a hunger for change; after eight years of hard-right governance dressed up as “compassionate conservatism,” they had fought hard for a new direction for the country. Obama’s message of change and hope had resonated with millions of Americans from all walks of life.

Obama came into office inheriting two far-off occupations, a country deep in the red, a tanking economy and a deeply entrenched establishment with no desire to see any substantive change. The widespread hope that a Democratic president with Obama’s rhetorical gifts and political savvy, and huge majorities in Congress, would deliver on his promises of reform has not weathered the intervening year well. The Democratic base is, by all measures, demoralized. Most political analysts agree that Obama and the Democratic leadership have the next 10 months to demonstrate some progress or face a shellacking in the midterm elections this November.

AlterNet's editorial team weighed in on what they think are the top concerns Obama ought to highlight in his speech to Congress, from drug policy to the prisoners still housed at Guantanamo Bay to new regulations for our financial system.

Economic Inequality

The state of our union is affected most by the state of the parts that constitute it—and despite what our ill-distribution of wealth might tell you, no parts are more important than the 300 million American people.

No one, not even those who wholly bought into the hope-and-change mantra, believed regular folks' lives would be transformed by Obama's first year in office, but even the less naive did not expect to see the populist, progressive tone of the presidential campaign take a severe turn so quickly. In the first year of the Obama presidency, the Treasury, Federal Reserve and Congress have readily and efficiently swooped to the rescue of the too-big-to-fail banks that, through the avaricious disregard for the systemic effects of their gambling, brought about the greatest depression since the great one.

At the same time, everyday Americans have felt the crunch on a daily basis. Today, more than one in eight Americans are on food stamps. One in five said they had trouble feeding themselves last year. The richest country in the world cannot feed its own because there are no jobs. While unemployment may appear to be falling, it is just for a very specific demographic group -- white men. Unemployment rates for minorities are in the teens and could reach the 20s this year. In recent months, women are bearing the brunt of job losses. The hardest hit are unmarried women -- especially single moms.

Last week, the Supreme Court officially sold our democracy to the highest bidder. The ruling further weakens government's accountability and legalizes an established practice of corporatizing Americans' well-beings. We can no longer afford inaction.

We must send money to the states with the highest unemployment rates; recommit to affirmative action policies; stop foreclosures and help people stay in their homes; strengthen financial regulation and consumer protections; end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and reinstate the estate tax. The government must recommit itself to the people.

Busting the Bailout Barons

Contrary to what Republicans, Rubinite Democrats and corrupt bank lobbyists will tell you, fixing the U.S. banking system isn't really all that complicated. The two most critical reforms are utterly intuitive, but Obama will have to go to the mat for both of them if he wants to see them enacted.

We all know what "too-big-to-fail" means. If a bank is so bloated that its failure would wreak havoc on the entire economy, then it's too-big-to-fail. That status encourages banks to take crazy risks in the capital markets casinos, and allows them to build political power to gouge consumers on credit cards, mortgages and anything else they can get their hands on.

How do you fix something that's too big? Make it smaller. Before the really crazy deregulation hit in the 1990s, banks were able to fuel healthy economic growth without putting millions of jobs in jeopardy. That's why even technocratic centrists like former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson and Kansas City Federal Reserve President Thomas Hoenig have suggested going back to the kind of banking we did before merger mania took hold in 1994. Back then, the biggest banks had total assets of about 1 percent of GDP. Today, that's about $150 billion, a cap that would require breaking up all of the multi-trillion-dollar bailout barons.

As anybody who uses a credit card can attest, the existing federal bank regulators only care about protecting bank profits. If banks can make money by screwing you over, the regulators don't care. The solution is simple: We need a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency that answers only to consumers, not bank balance sheets.

The bank lobby has been fighting both of these tooth-and-nail. The State of the Union address is a perfect opportunity to push back.

Health Care Reform

With no precedent since the passage of Medicare in the 1960s against which to measure President Obama's success on health care reform, there's no easy judgment to make on the administration's role in this tumultuous legislative process.

There's much not to like, especially the president's willingness to yield on his expressed support for a public health insurance plan, and his insistence on courting Republican members of Congress who never had any intention of supporting a health care reform bill. And the ascendancy of an anti-choice corps of Democrats can be partly laid at the president's feet, given his appointment of such anti-choice activists as the Rev. Jim Wallis to his own Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a move that likely emboldened the likes of Rep. Bart Stupak of Ohio and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, both of whom successfully sponsored anti-abortion measures in their chambers' respective versions of the bill.

Obama's overall style seems rooted in the anticipation of limitations to his actions imposed from the outside, and then a thrust for movement within those limitations. In light of that fact, last week's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for the seat long held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, may prove more a boon than an obstacle to the passage of a health care reform bill.

Lacking any pretense of a 60-vote "supermajority" capable of breaking a Republican filibuster in the Senate, the White House and congressional Democrats will be forced to play a craftier game in order to get health care reform passed, and that game could yield an unexpected bonus or two—like the reintroduction of a public option, or the return of a Medicare buy-in for people under 65.

That's because the Democrats will now be forced to used a Senate procedure called reconciliation in order to get any semblance of an acceptable bill passed in the end, since reconciliation requires only a simple majority. The catch is that it applies only to measures that are specific to the budget—and the creation of a new, government-run health insurance plan arguably fits the bill, as does the expansion of an existing government program such as Medicare.

So, instead of a bill that exists mostly to provide new customers to corporate insurance companies, as the current Senate bill does, we could end up with one that actually provides protected and affordable health care to a majority of Americans.

When evaluating the administration's apparently faltering attempts at getting health care reform passed, it's only fair to put it in the context of what has come before in the quest for universal coverage. And that's pretty much a big fat zero. Never before has an administration come so close to passage of a health care bill that would provide subsidized coverage to more than 90 percent of Americans. No cigar yet, but we could still be lighting up in 2010. Let's hope we're congratulating ourselves for finally winning that public option.

War and Peace

If there's one area where Obama has gone beyond his campaign promises, it's Afghanistan, where he has not only committed tens of thousands more troops, but has overseen an unprecedented surge in the number of private military contractors. Currently, there are 68,000 troops and 121,000 contractors in Afghanistan; in the coming months, Obama plans to deploy some 30,000 troops and up to 56,000 contractors.

Candidate Obama promised to expand Bush's counterterror efforts into Pakistan, and indeed, his administration has overseen a spate of drone strikes over that country (a nation, it bears remembering, the United States has not declared war on). Both the Pentagon and the CIA are conducting drone strikes in the area now known as "AfPak." It is not clear how many civilians have died as a result, but the fact that innocents will continue to be killed is indisputable. Obama was only in office for three days before the second drone strike of his presidency hit the wrong target. According to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, the strike killed the entire family of a pro-government tribal leader, including his three children. These deaths are sure to undermine anything and everything the U.S. military attempts to do to win "hearts and minds."

And then there's Iraq, where events this week provide a blood-soaked reminder that things in that country are anything but stable. In 2009, some 400 people were killed and more than 1,000 wounded in coordinated bombings at government buildings. With Iraqi elections coming up in March, the violence is likely to increase.

Yet, in December, Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, mere days after announcing he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," he said, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Instead, Obama set the date for withdrawal as July 2011, a deadline that was quickly disavowed by numerous advisers in the press less than a week later.

Given his two major war speeches in December, at West Point and in Oslo, it seems unlikely that Obama will spend too much time defending his military policies. However, there is some speculation that Obama will announce plans to finally repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell—a welcome possibility.

Civil Liberties

On his second day on office, Obama signed a series of executive orders promising to restore fundamental pillars of American democracy. No longer would the "war on terror" mean that prisoners would be tortured in secret prisons with no right to trial. Obama promised to end torture. He also pledged to close Guantanamo by January 22, 2010.

One year later, Guantanamo remains open and prisoners continue to be allegedly mistreated. As former Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander recently wrote in a New York Timesop-ed, "Though the president deserves praise for improving matters, the changes were not as drastic as most Americans think."

"If I were to return to one of the war zones today," he wrote, "I would still be allowed to abuse prisoners."

And then there's the torture of indefinite detention, a once controversial policy that was routinely condemned by Democrats under Bush. The Obama administration has announced plans to hold at least 50 prisoners at Guantanamo indefinitely, without charge or trial. This is not just unconstitutional, it is in itself torture, a gross violation of human rights by a country that still claims to be a global standard-bearer.

Obama's Department of Justice has blocked every effort for victims of extraordinary rendition to seek justice in U.S. courts, on cynical "state secrets" grounds. And while Attorney General Eric Holder assigned a special investigator to conduct a probe into the Bush-era torture program, it's clear the investigation will leave the worst architects responsible for the program unscathed.

Obama deserves credit for declassifying and releasing a series of memos that authorized specific forms of torture in the first place. "American presidents simply do not disseminate to the world memos detailing our national crimes committed in secret," Glenn Greenwald recently wrote for The Nation, "but Obama did exactly that." Yet it remains unclear to what end, and as Greenwald has so clearly established, when it comes to civil liberties, Obama has continued some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration.

Will these topics make it into the State of the Union address? Not likely. Obama has a lot of domestic ground to cover. And he likes to "look forward, not back."

Environment and Water

While George W. Bush admitted in one of his State of the Union addresses that America is addicted to oil, it's time for Obama to admit we're also addicted to coal. While Congress dukes it out over a comprehensive climate and energy bill (and yes, this should still be a number one priority), we need to act fast to transform our dependence on dirty energy to clean energy.

A good first step would be a moratorium on mountaintop removal mining. New scientific evidence corroborates what Appalachian residents and environmentalists have been saying for years—the practice obliterates trees, bodies of water, wildlife and wildlife habitat and communities. It poisons the air and water and drives people from their homes. And that's just getting coal out of the ground. Burning it in the large quantities we've come to depend on is pushing our earth's climate quickly toward the brink, creating a grave threat to both human and environmental health.

This will also mean we need to spend more money investing in clean, renewable energy and green jobs, in coal country and throughout the nation. Organizations like the Apollo Alliance have created plans for re-investment and development of programs to guide efforts. Stimulus money last year dedicated to green jobs and clean energy has gone a long way toward jump-starting some of these programs, but continued support is still needed. It's unclear yet how Obama's new proposal for a three-year spending freeze will apply to this sector, but a boost is what is needed, not cuts.

Women's Rights

Almost exactly a year ago today, President Obama signed his first bill into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which removed a punitive statute of limitation for the pursuit of wages lost due to gender discrimination, or any other type of prohibited discrimination. It was a great first signal to American women, especially after an election won in the wake of a hard-fought Democratic primary that could have yielded the nation's first female president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama's appointment of Clinton to the post of secretary of state sent another such signal—and then some. Clinton is a fierce defender of women's rights, and she hasn't hesitated to make her stance known even in diplomatic situations where women's rights are more commonly shelved as cultural issues not within the purview of a human rights policy.

Yet when it comes to a woman's right to her own bodily integrity within U.S. borders, the president's support has often seemed tepid. To his Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships offices, Obama has appointed anti-choice advisers, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis and Alexia Kelley, the former executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Despite words to the contrary, he's seemed all too willing to accept the madness of the anti-choice Stupak amendment to the House version of health care reform.

Obama needs to step up to the plate on reproductive rights. He needs to take a strong rhetorical stand against the anti-choice measures in the health care reform bills. Alas, it's too late to fix these, but any celebratory remarks that accompany his signing of a final bill should include an expression of regret for the awful anti-choice language of the Senate bill (which will likely be the final bill before the reconciliation process is invoked to "fix" the budgetary aspects of the bill). The president should also call for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, the measure restricting the use of federal funds for abortion. With the current make-up of Congress, there's no chance of repeal winning the day, so the president has little to lose in making the case.

And the president needs to send his law enforcement team on the stump to clearly state that not only will the administration not tolerate violence against abortion providers, it will regard any crime against them as a violation of the rights of women.


Some advocates of comprehensive immigration reform are disappointed that the Obama administration hasn't been more aggressive in pushing a bill through Congress in its first year in office—and probably the second as well.

But we're not going to jump on that bandwagon, as the Democratic leadership has had its hands full with health care and the economy. Clearly, Congress has no appetite for tackling yet another complex and controversial piece of legislation at the moment. Yet the Department of Homeland Security, the agency tasked with enforcing the laws currently on the books, is an executive agency; and a year after Obama moved into the White House, his promises to reform a detention system that has become nothing short of a national disgrace have proven hollow.

Just last week, the New York Times noted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is still "running secretive immigration prisons into which detainees have frequently disappeared, their grave illnesses and injuries untreated, their fates undisclosed until well after early and unnecessary deaths." TheTimes editors added:

The Obama administration has since promised a top-to-bottom reform of the immense detention system, which was erected in sloppy haste during the Bush years, largely by private contractors that had dim regard for oversight and standards. John Morton, the leader of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has promised to create a system of civil detention suitable for inmates who are mostly not criminals.

But his agency has a long way to go. And it still is resisting adequate outside oversight and the adoption of legally binding detention standards, insisting instead that it can best change its own rules and police itself.


While Obama has a star chef in the White House and an organic garden on the lawn, it's time for all Americans to get support for eating healthier food. A good start would be eliminating subsidies that encourage the wrong kind of farming.

"Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing 'specialty crops'—farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables," wrote Michael Pollan. "Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops—including animals—as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides."

We don't need to spend taxpayer dollars making sure there's high-fructose corn syrup in everything from salad dressing to chicken nuggets. Instead, we can channel our resources toward supporting the kind of agriculture that will be better for human health, communities and the environment.

"If organic farmers received an equal distribution of taxpayer-funded handouts from the government, the cost of producing crops free from synthetic chemicals would be cheaper, making them more affordable to more people, in turn increasing demand for these products—which would further drive down costs," wrote natural food crusader Robyn O'Brien. "If we were to reallocate our national budget and evenly distribute our tax dollars to all farmers, clean food would be affordable to everyone and not just those in certain zip codes."

LGBT Rights

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama repeatedly pledged his commitment to LGBT rights. As president, Obama has yet to deliver on his promises to the gay community.

During the campaign Obama spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. The law, enacted during the Clinton administration, allows states to refuse recognition of same-sex unions performed by other states. The president must send a bill to Congress to repeal the law.

Obama must also deliver on his promises to LGBT Americans serving in the military by repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. DADT, the policy banning openly gay service members from the military, is unjust, discriminatory and weakens the armed forces. In the years the law has been in effect, 13,000 service men and women have lost their jobs because of the discriminatory measure; since Obama took office, 265 service members have been discharged from the service. Unlike 16 years ago when DADT was enacted, a majority of Americans do not support the policy; in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll conducted in December, 81 percent of respondents said they believed openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the military.

In the next year, Obama must take concrete steps to lift the ban on gays in the military. According to the Center for American Progress, the president can start by issuing an Executive Order banning further military discharges based on sexual orientation; push to repeal DADT in Congress; then work to ensure military protocol conforms to the new policy.

The War on Drugs

Last year saw dozens of victories for the drug reform movement at the state level, but there were also signals in Washington that the environment is changing. White House drug czar Gill Kerlikowske called for an "end to the war on drugs," while Obama's Justice Department put the clamps on raiding patients and caregivers in states with medical marijuana laws. Congress repealed a ban on syringe exchange funding, and finally allowed DC to enact a medical marijuana program. Obama ought to focus on these areas in the State of the Union:

--Tell Americans that a smarter approach to drug reform is the harm reduction model and stress pragmatic solutions to social ills like substance abuse.

--End the government's fear-mongering and misuse of data to suggest that pot is addictive and has serious health consequences.

-- Share his support for the Senate's newly minted National Criminal Justice Commission, whose mandate is a comprehensive review of every aspect of the criminal justice system, "with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom."