After one tumultuous year in office, President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address last evening to re-state his agenda. But rather than the inspiring rhetoric of a campaign speech, it was a more sober reflection on unfinished business.
Not surprisingly, the president focused on the economy, particularly jobs and financial reform. And although he said that "the worst of the storm has passed," he emphasized the one in 10 Americans still unemployed, and said:
For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn't; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems.
He then proposed a series of job creation programs, largely focusing on small business and education, and declared: "I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay." We do need a laser-like focus on job creation as the top priority which, hopefully, the president seems ready to do. Our infrastructure is in great need of re-building, a task which must be directed by the conversion to a clean energy economy. Part of that necessary change is, as he said, "passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America."
It is also now crucial that President Obama be very tough on the need for new and substantial financial regulations to, as he said, "guard against the same recklessness that nearly brought down our entire economy." Financial reform is now a moral issue, in the face of the many sins of Wall Street which led to this crisis. But the financial industry is already spending millions to prevent new regulation. Greed and corporate irresponsibility led to this Great Recession and a new ethic of public accountability is critical for both economic and moral recovery. The willingness of the administration to be very tough on the necessity of new financial regulations will be a crucial test, especially since its top economic advisors are perceived as too close to Wall Street. Several of the steps he announced last evening are in the right direction.
One part of financial reform that he did not mention is the growing number of people losing their homes. We also need to prioritize keeping people in their homes by preventing or postponing foreclosures. Banks must be pushed to extend the "grace" to others that taxpayers extended to them in the bank bailouts.
On the pending health-care reform legislation, the president declared: "After nearly a century of trying, we are closer than ever to bringing more security to the lives of so many Americans," and told the Congress, "Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done." The continuing moral test of completing health-care reform will be how many currently uninsured people will be included -- which has been a central commitment of the religious community.
And although immigration reform was not a major focus, the president did say, "we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system -- to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation." That promise of comprehensive immigration reform must be kept, as a necessary commitment to both compassion and social justice.
Foreign and military policy was not a central theme, but he reiterated his historic and significant commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. On budget priorities, there was a short reference that, "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will." We will wait until his budget is submitted next week to see what that really means, but let us be clear that it is time to include defense spending in the cuts necessary for fiscal responsibility. True national security is compromised by continuing to make military spending into a sacred cow that must not be touched, no matter the wasted billions for weapon systems we do not need.
President Obama concluded his speech with a ringing declaration:
We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment -- to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.
Now more than ever, we must build a movement that can push the president to lead on the policies of economic and social uplift, and challenge him where his priorities are wrong. We also don't quit.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.