President Barack Obama highlighted the economy, healthcare and national security, focusing not only on 2016 but also the future of the country for years to come, in his final State of the Union address Tuesday night.
In an interview after the speech, Communications Prof. Josh Pasek said the president’s focus during the speech was shaped by the fact that it was his last in office.
“The president is going to attempt to define his legacy in a way that he thinks will help shape the understanding of what policies he’s put in place throughout his tenure in office,” Pasek said. “And in his view this will help encourage the future of the presidency to be one that maintains or upholds those policies.”
During his speech, Obama first addressed the economy, calling the United State’s economy the strongest in the world. He accredited the country’s success to both job creation and the recovery of the auto industry.
“We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history,” he said. “More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ’90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever.”
The White House recently announced plans for Obama to visit Detroit for the North American International Auto Show. Obama also visited a Ford Motor manufacturing plant prior to his 2015 State of the Union address last year.
In a press release after the speech, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn) emphasized the importance of Obama’s mention of Detroit’s auto industry.
“We also must continue to innovate, which is why it was so important that the President highlighted the comeback of the auto industry,” she said. “As we saw at the North American International Auto Show, Michigan is still in the driver’s seat when it comes to producing and designing next-generation vehicles and I cannot wait to see the President there next week,”
Speaking to his actions on healthcare reform, Obama said the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2012, centers on ensuring coverage for Americans when they need it most. In particular, he highlighted what he called the act’s main successes: job creation and slowing a rise in health care costs.
“It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when we lose a job, or go back to school, or start that new business, we’ll still have coverage,” he said. “Nearly eighteen million have gained coverage so far. Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.”
In an interview after the speech, Public Health Prof. Peter Jacobson said the most significant achievements of the Affordable Care Act were the decrease in the number of uninsured people and health care costs, as well as encouraging healthy behavior to keep people out of the hospital.
“The act if not directly, then implicitly, encourages healthcare providers to think outside the walls of the hospital to keep communities healthy, and in the long run that is the most significant aspect,” he said.
He added that due to a general public misunderstanding of what the Affordable Care Act has achieved, the president’s last task involving health care should be to educate about that through platforms like the State of the Union.
“He and his administration can do a better job of explaining all of the benefits that the act has brought while recognizing its shortcomings,” Jacobson.
Along with discussing the Affordable Care Act, Obama also announced a national effort to combat cancer, which was met by applause from both sides of the aisle.
“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer,” he said. “Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.”
Turning to the issue of national security, Obama noted the success of various international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal — which aims to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon — and the Paris climate talks, which are the most substantial climate agreement since the 1992 Kyoto Protocol.
Obama also said foreign policy must focus on stopping the spread of global terrorist groups, while not wasting American resources.
“Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks,” he said. “We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.”
Domestically, the president announced a plan to travel across the country to raise support for policies that will increase cooperation within Congress.
“But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task — or any President’s — alone,” he said. “There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected,” he said. “And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”
Obama ended the address with a call to end partisan and other identity-based divisions within the country in order to uphold the American brand of democracy, but said he was hopeful about the future.
“That’s the country we love,” he said. “Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you. That’s why I stand here confident that the State of our Union is strong.”
Looking at the upcoming legislative year, Pasek said he doesn’t think there is much Obama can do until after the election in November.
“He’s already doing a lot via executive orders and things of that sort,” he said. “But I don’t see much movement in Congress to pass things that are Obama-like, at least before the election. After the election it’s possible that outgoing members of Congress and Obama will be able to get some stuff done during the lame duck session.”
In reaction to the address, School of Information senior Madeline Jursek, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said while she disagreed with the president’s foreign policy stances, there were several domestic policies that resonated with her.
“While I don't agree with everything that Obama said tonight, as a millennial Republican, there were some policies that I agreed with, “ she said. “The idea of dedicating more resources to cancer research definitely resonated with me. One of the major policies that I did not agree with the president on is foreign policy and national security. I personally feel that we need to take a stronger stance against ISIS in order to protect our nation from future terrorist attacks.”
Public Policy senior Max Lerner, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said he appreciated the president’s emphasis on civic engagement.
“As young people, when we see legislators or governors or presidents doing things that we disagree with, a lot of it is because we don’t civically engage the way we should, we don’t vote at high enough rates, we don’t make our voices heard loud enough, and I think that’s part of what the president was calling for tonight,” Lerner said. “And what’s going to be so important heading into the 2016 presidential election.”