Gelman: Dissecting Obama’s State of the Union address

Max Gelman, Columnist

Emboldened with the knowledge that his approval rating is at 50 percent for the first time since Spring 2013, President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night with a swagger and confidence we haven’t seen since he was just a senator from Illinois.

Obama appeared daring and willing to tackle the big issues head-on, with his speech ranging from infrastructure to paid sick leave, from the Iranian nuclear proposal to open internet. Here’s a breakdown of the good and the bad parts of his speech:

The Good

Minimum wage – Arguably the biggest issue Obama tackled in his address was making the middle class strong again, and for good reason. Increasing evidence suggests that the rich are getting richer at a much faster rate than the middle-class, and not just in the United States. According to a vast majority of economists, increasing the minimum wage is an incredibly effective, and cheap, way to reduce poverty. It’s great to see the president realize that raising the minimum wage is an incredibly important topic right now, despite not laying out an actual plan. With this subject also came what I thought to be one of the best quotes of the night: “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.”

Hiring veterans – The President boldly called out American CEOs on Tuesday to hire veterans returning from combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I love that. The armed forces consist of some of the bravest individuals this country has to offer, but because a plurality of military personnel are young adults who enlist right after high school, they don’t have proper professional training to enter the civilian workforce. The First and Second Ladies are already strong advocates for returning veterans, with their Joining Forces program helping nearly 700,000 veterans find jobs, and Obama’s challenge to large corporations again illustrated his confident demeanor.

The Bad

Oil prices – The biggest market trend right now is the tumble of crude oil prices, which recently fell below $50 per barrel for the first time since the recession. While that may be great for consumers at the gas pump, the president’s actions have little to no effect on the fluctuation of oil prices. The real reason oil prices have tanked is because Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest producer of oil, has refused to cut production in an effort to devalue North American shale oil. It’s a simple case of economic supply and demand — Saudi Arabia wants as little competition for its oil as possible and to continue to flood the market despite increasingly lower demand for crude oil globally, making American oil less valuable. That the president took credit for tumbling gas prices is just another tired political talking point.

Cuba – Last week the United States officially eased travel and trade restrictions on the communist island nation of Cuba, ending a diplomatic policy that is over 50 years old. While I’m all for ending that outdated embargo, the fact that Guantanamo Bay remains open as a prison camp is horrifying after the revelations of the Senate’s torture report last December. Obama promised he would close the detention center on his very first day of office, but six years later, detainees are still held there. Obama declared in his address that his administration has “worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half.” Does that mean half of his campaign promise came true? No more half measures, Mr. President. Stop reneging on your promise and close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp once and for all.

Overall, I thought Obama spoke very well Tuesday. His vigor seemed restored and there was considerably less “campaign-speak” in the address. The way the President handles an all-Republican Congress in last two years of his presidency will be very interesting.

Max Gelman is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].