State of the Union gets bolder

  At last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Seth Meyers joked that the only man that could defeat the president was “2008 Barack Obama.” But the man delivering the State of the Union address in the House Chamber last Tuesday looked just like the popular candidate of four years ago, albiet grayer. Despite being an election year in which many politicians scramble for votes, Obama didn’t pull any punches in his third State of the Union. Were all of the proposals that the president laid out in this past speech realized? No. But a State of the Union address is supposed to be ambitious. Obama used the highest-profile speech of the year to confront issues that have been kicked down the road for decades, like education reform. He boldly proposed that all states make it mandatory for high school students to stay enrolled until they turn 18 or graduate. Perhaps even more daring was the president’s proposal to public schools: reward the good teachers, sack the bad ones. The president’s speechwriters softened the language to, “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn,” but the connotation was there. What’s bold is the conflict the president is setting up with teachers’ unions, who are some of the main supporters of the Democratic Party. The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States, and has objected to education reforms that would weaken teacher tenure by making it easier to fire bad teachers, as well as to merit-base pay. At the risk of alienating a major bloc of the Democratic Party, the White House acted in the best interests of the nation’s children, instead. Obama also took on the spiraling cost of higher education, threatening universities that if tuition costs were not reigned in, taxpayer funding of these institutions would be cut. The president in the House Chamber last Tuesday wasn’t a politician with his back against the wall, conceding to a one-term presidency. It wasn’t the president who drew the ire of his own party for caving to Republicans on the extension of the Bush tax cuts, or giving into the Republican House leadership’s tantrums over raising the debt ceiling. Instead, the president laid out a bold vision for the future. He scolded Congress, offered an ultimatum to teachers’ unions and told wealthy Americans that they — just like him — should pay more taxes.  He told America’s largest corporations that they should be punished, not rewarded, for outsourcing American jobs, and should not be permitted to evade tax laws. At the risk of imperiling his chances for reelection in 10 months, the president proposed what his administration thought was best for the country.  The president’s proposals for success in the future aren’t the fluffy, let’s-pat-ourselves-on-the-back-because-America-is-awesome ideas that have dominated election-year State of the Union addresses in the past. His proposals are challenging and won’t be easily accomplished.  The problems he outlined, like reliance on foreign energy and the struggle for viable clean energy, are not easily answered and will likely plague us for decades. Yet that didn’t deter the president from imploring Congress to confront these issues head-on. And for that he deserves congratulations.  They say presidents age much faster when they are in office. But last Tuesday, the candidate looked a hell of a lot like he did four years ago.