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A civics teacher tries to offer some rationale for caring about the President’s annual speech. The author thinks his students should be interested in this one in particular.

I can hear my eighth graders now –“Mr. Cassutto, why should we care about the State of the Union Address?
Isn’t the president’s address 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?!” As a teacher of civics and history, it’s my job to make this speech matter to my students. Can it be done?

For the first time in his presidency, President Obama entered a House chamber now controlled by a Republican majority.The President began by acknowledging the victory of John Boehner to the speakership of the House. He also acknowledged the sacrifice Representative Gabrielle Giffords has made in the line of duty, pointing out the empty seat in the House of Representatives symbolizing her absence. These formalities are designed to demonstrate to the nation that the president doesn’t just talk the talk of the new tone of civility; he walks the walk. This is a certainly a “teachable moment” for my students and for the nation.

President Obama continued to extol the benefits of our democracy and the fierce debates that take place within it. He called on Americans and their lawmakers to work together in developing laws that “promote the general welfare” of the American people. Then Obama recounted the improvements that have taken place since he took office. He pointed to the record level of the stock market. He reminded the chamber of the bipartisan tax cuts that followed the creation of one million private sector jobs. He also pointed out the economic challenges that the American people continue to face as a result of the Great Recession. Obama has to lay the foundation for any proposals to invest in America’s infrastructure; something the Republican majority in the House will characterize as just more deficit spending that hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work now. “We can’t spend our way to prosperity,” they claim. There is a valuable lesson here for future householders who have wracked up too much credit card debt and now need to tighten their belts. Republicans also claim they don’t want to settle their own children with insurmountable amounts of government debt.

Next, President Obama set the stage for his legislative agenda. He pointed out the technological changes now sweeping the globe. This led him to identify China and other nations of the developing world such as India as America’s strongest competitors. He called on the Congress to make America the best place in the world to do business. At that point he called on the Congress to cut the deficit. He called on the nation to renew its ability to innovate in technology by recalling the moment when Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union.  My students will have to consult their history books to understand what a “Sputnik moment” is, but they may be the beneficiaries of such a moment, the same way we Baby Boomers benefited from increased education spending after the Soviets took off like a rabbit in 1957 when the space race began.

Obama launched into the need to reform education, first with renewed efforts within the home by the efforts of parents and then in the classroom through the efforts of teachers and administrators. He emphasized the importance of science and math education, claiming these areas held the promise of competitiveness on the world stage for American students. He called for schools to be a place of high expectations by pointing to his “Race to the Top” program. He called it the “most meaningful education reform in a generation.” Though sparse on specifics, he called on Congress to retire No Child Left Behind with a more flexible and effective law. I called out in agreement when he applauded American teachers and called on America to give teachers the respect they deserve. The president asked young people to go into teaching because “your country needs you.” It is time to dispose of the old adage that held, “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

According to the president, the federal government has a responsibility to put higher education in reach for every American. He pointed out how his administration was making it easier for young people to achieve this goal. He identified community colleges that are serving low income students in rural areas. The president set a goal for America to have the highest graduation rate in the world. He also described the situation of the children of immigrants who are here illegally. His reference was a call to pass the Dream Act, which failed in the Senate. He offered that rationale that those immigrants that America educates return to other nations that compete against the US. It is here that young people in America have the greatest stake in the president’s legislative agenda and in coming battles with the Congress over spending in the area of student loans, grants, and high education expenditures. The entire nation needs to have a strong higher education system if it hopes to compete against the rising technological proclivities of the developing world.

The President then moved on to a call for renewed investment in America’s infrastructure. He pointed out that the federal Recovery Act of 2009, also called the Stimulus Bill, put thousands of Americans back to work with money that would not raise the deficit while generating jobs and improved technology. Here is where Obama could make the case that what could have become a second Great Depression was reduced to being the “Great Recession.”

The centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union Address called for a government that is leaner, smarter, and more efficient. He pointed out the redundancies and overlapping programs that cost the American taxpayer billions. He even joked about how the Interior and Commerce Departments bureaucratically deal with saltwater and freshwater fish. He promised to submit a proposal that will reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the people. Along with a promise to veto earmarks (what used to be called “pork-barrel spending”), the president wants an improvement in the perception of government by the American people. It is here that Obama’s speech identified the root difference between the two parties, or three parties if you include the Tea Party as a separate entity from the mainstream Republicans: that public service in government is an honorable and worthy profession, not something to be derided or scorned.

The president addressed foreign policy issues in his speech, but to a lesser degree than domestic issues. Obama claimed that America’s standing around the world has been restored and he used Iraq as an example declaring that the Iraq war has come to an end. But he warned against Al Qaeda’s renewed efforts to attack America. In contrast, he reminded the chamber that Muslim-Americans are part of the American family. He also renewed America’s commitments to its allies such as South Korea and its efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear program. Obama pledged to forge new alliances in central and South America. He also reminded the chamber that we were one nation by pointing out that the policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has come to an end. President Obama used the US military, an institution that prides itself on uniformity and discipline, to illustrate the diversity of the American mosaic.

To close, the President issued a call to competitiveness for US entrepreneurs and businesses and one of confidence in American ingenuity. He concluded with the success story of small businesses that rose to a moment of crisis and achieved success in the face of adversity. With that, he declared our union “strong.” Like every president before him, he used the State of the Union address as a cheerleading session for the nation, uniting its people and their elected representatives in a common purpose. Given the charged atmosphere after the Tucson tragedy, President Obama was able to use the fresh feelings of comity and cooperation in the House chamber to set a positive tone for the second half of his first term. My students are right to ask, “Mr. Cassutto, how long will it last and will it make a difference?”

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2011
Used with permission