State of the Union
In his last State of the Union address, President Obama made an impassioned case against religious bigotry and cast other key issues in moral terms.
He rejected “any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”
“This is not a matter of political correctness,” he said. “This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity and our openness and the way we respect every faith.”
We live in a time of extraordinary change – change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet and our place in the world. It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.
This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.
The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."
Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.
Last night I watched the State of the Union, because I live in D.C., and this is our Super Bowl. My roommate, who works on women’s rights, was listening for any mention of her "issues." And I’m no different: I tuned in to the president’s address to hear what he would have to say about climate change.
And he did have a lot to say! This is what he said:
"And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.
"2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."
What struck me was that it’s now totally normal for the President of the United States to speak firmly and at length about the clear and present danger of climate change.
Look at how far we’ve come! This is real progress — this is a cultural shift. This is a victory.
But this Monday, I marked Martin Luther King Day by reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail with members of a neighborhood church. And I heard Dr. King admonishing me for my celebration.
Editor's Note: President Obama delivered his seventh State of the Union address last night (January 20, 2015). Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans:
We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.
But tonight, we turn the page.
Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.
Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over. Six years ago, nearly 180,000 American troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, fewer than 15,000 remain. And we salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.
America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this:
The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.
Many of us believe skyrocketing income inequality is the most important economic, political, and moral issue confronting our nation. Everyone from members of Congress to Pope Francis has called for action — and now our president is leading by example.
In his State of the Union address, the president announced he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for a group of federally contracted workers. Recent research has revealed that the federal government is our nation’s leading low-wage job creator, creating more than 2 million jobs through federal contracts, loans, and grants. With this stroke of the pen, the president will begin to transform the lives of many of these Americans who are struggling to survive.
Unfortunately, many conservative commentators are criticizing the president’s action. They claim he is overstepping his legal authority and even violating his constitutional powers.
Tuesday was a big day here in Washington, D.C. The president of the United States addressed both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, laying out his State of the Union. In this annual speech, the President lays out his vision of where the country is at, and where we are headed. With great pomp and circumstance, the Commander-in-Chief delivers a message for the whole nation.
Tuesday night was a big moment for my community, too. The D.C. small group of Friends of Jesus gathered for our first small group meeting of 2014. We caught up with one another after many weeks apart. We experienced the story of Acts 2 in the form of a bibliodrama that we acted out together. We shared a time of deep worship and prayer.
Energy policy and climate change action are inexorably linked, like two oxen in a yoke.
The trouble with this set-up is that while climate action tends to look straight ahead, energy policy is apt to veer off on any number of paths, some of them quite well-meaning, like job growth or “energy independence.”
Last night’s State of the Union address by President Obama was, I’m afraid, one such experience for climate action, which compared to the huge bull of energy issues is a yearling at best. The yoke between energy and climate did get mentioned by the president, but the yoke pressed toward economic growth, the paradigm which many argue is responsible for our ecological crisis in the first place. It’s enough to strain a vertebra.
President Obama touched on several hot button issues as he addressed the economy, immigration, and gun violence in his State of the Union on Tuesday.
Responding for the GOP, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., hinted at a term that has faded from Republican rhetoric in recent years: compassionate conservatism. Compassionate conservatism is a the idea that the government should use traditionally conservative strategies to improve the general welfare of society.
“We believe in a government that trusts people and doesn’t limit where you finish because of where you started,” she said. ”That is what we stand for – for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional.”
Editor's Note: The following is President Obama's State of the Union speech as prepared for delivery. Read Sojourners President Jim Wallis' statement HERE.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, my fellow Americans:
Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.
An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.
An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil.
A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history. A rural doctor gave a young child the first prescription to treat asthma that his mother could afford. A man took the bus home from the graveyard shift, bone-tired but dreaming big dreams for his son. And in tight-knit communities across America, fathers and mothers will tuck in their kids, put an arm around their spouse, remember fallen comrades, and give thanks for being home from a war that, after twelve long years, is finally coming to an end.
Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.
In contrast to the ongoing public and political debate surrounding the legitimacy and urgency of climate change, the global scientific body of knowledge appears to be overwhelmingly clear, as highlighted in The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding:
"The consensus position on climate change is reflected in the rigorously peer-reviewed journals in which research is presented and issues are debated. One study by Naomi Oreskes, published in the journalScience, demonstrated that of the papers whose abstract contained the keywords global climate changebetween 1993 and 2003, none questioned the consensus position – not one. Oreskes’s subsequent book,Merchants of Doubt, revealed how many who once fronted the tobacco industry’s anti-science campaign to deny the link between smoking and lung cancer are also now prominent and vocal climate change skeptics, and they are often funded to create doubt that has no credible scientific basis."
There is a tradition in the black church named “call and response.” It’s simply the experience of the preacher “calling” and the congregation “responding.” I’ve always loved it. When you’re preaching in a black church, and the congregants begin to actively and vocally respond, your sermon can actually get better, stronger, deeper, and more powerful than it might have been if everyone just sat there. Sermons get interactive. Congregations can be inspired by the preacher — and the other way around. Ideas grow, get taken further, and even develop during and after the sermon. And it can make things change.
After his first year in office, I sent a letter to President Barack Obama humbly suggesting he needed “the political equivalent of the black church’s call and response.” Just talking to and in Washington was never going to get important things done. Washington just sits there and mostly makes sure that things don’t change — and that the special interests that buy, shape, and control this city usually have their way. (That private letter to the president will be published for the first time in my new book about the common good coming out in April.)
I recalled something Obama said right after the 2008 election — that he would need “the wind of a movement at my back” to get anything really important done. He would have to go over the heads of Washington, to speak directly to the people that had elected him and also those who didn’t. He would have to have public debates about the common good and not just debate in Washington.
I saw him do that in this week’s State of the Union speech.
Editor's Note: Below is the full text of the 2013 State of the Union on Feb. 12. For a response to the evening's remarks, see Jim Wallis' column HERE.
Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress.” (Applause.) “It is my task,” he said, “to report the State of the Union -- to improve it is the task of us all.”
Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. (Applause.) After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in 20. (Applause.) Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before. (Applause.)
So, together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the State of our Union is stronger.
There was truth tonight in the president’s State of the Union message.
There was truth that the rising costs of health care must indeed be addressed by serious reforms in our Medicare and healthcare system — but that it’s wrong to put most of that burden on vulnerable seniors, while protecting the most powerful special interests. Truth that you should not reduce the deficit by cuts in crucial investments in education, infrastructure, science, clean energy, or programs for the most vulnerable — but leave billions of dollars in tax loopholes and deductions for the wealthy and well-connected.
Truth in the compassionate and committed words about “poverty” and “poor” children and families who deserve our attention to find ladders up from poverty. Truth that no one who works full time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to live in poverty but have a living wage. That quality pre-school should be available to every child in America to create stable and successful families.
"Lincoln’s writings speak to me ... that though we may have our differences, we are one people, and we are one nation, united by a common creed. ... Lincoln saw beyond the bloodshed and division. He saw us not only as we were, but as we might be." - President Barack Obama
"We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'" -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dear President Obama,
Your words above aptly describe the greatness of Abraham Lincoln. Slavery was the moral crisis of his time, and because he fervently believed "we are one people," he took a stance which initially led to much adversity. But he rose to the challenge and the rest is history.
In a speech to Congress in 1862, Lincoln said: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
Circumstances have conspired to place you at the presidential helm during a moment of unprecedented global crisis. Last year, we saw one of the most prominent features of our planet — as seen from space — altered beyond recognition. A huge portion of the snow and ice white of the Arctic was simply, and stunningly, gone.
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