State of the Union was class act with crass responses

Julianne Malveaux 01President Obama did his thing when he delivered the State of the Union Address (SOU) last week.

There was confidence in his speech, some off-the-cuff humor, and a little swagger when he rattled off his accomplishments and asserted that the state of the Union is “strong.”

I disagree with parts of the address, especially around economic issues. But I was delighted with the president’s forceful tone, and with his insistence of speaking both of issues and of our toxic political climate.

Consistent behavior
Our president loves these United States of America, and he always has.  He believes in our unity.

He believes that we can come together, transcending party lines, for the good of our nation.

As he always has, he spoke of bipartisan cooperation, holding out an olive branch to House Speaker Paul Ryan and pledging to work with him on poverty and criminal justice reform.

“Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.”

Thus, with spirit, Obama offered important facts about economic distribution.

“After years now of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks just by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at everybody else’s expense.

“Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.

“Immigrants aren’t the principal reason wages haven’t gone up; those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.”

Economic weakness
As I applauded, I was disappointed that Obama overstated our nation’s economic success.  Yes, the unemployment rate is lower – but too many people have dropped out of the labor force.  Yes, there are more jobs than there were eight years ago – but there are fewer jobs than there should be.

Wages are stagnant.

It would not have hurt him to examine some of our economic weakness, especially if he highlighted the legislation he has sent to this Congress that would employ more people.  Touting a strong economy genuflects to those who are enjoying this strong economy.  Too many are not.

I’m not sure I’d call the state of the Union “strong.” The president said many of the right things about education, women’s issues, income inequality, and immigration; he could have said things differently, but one doesn’t expect policy details from a SOU address.   I guess it is too much to ask that our president address the African- American community, even in a sentence.  As I listened, I hoped that, in this last address, the president might acknowledge his staunchest supporters.

While President Obama exuded nothing but class, it was amazing to watch House Speaker Ryan behaving like a bored child.  He was mostly inexpressive, but he also fidgeted and rolled his eyes as if he could not be but so bothered.  He behaved as if like he didn’t want to be there.

More Republican crass
Are we surprised that Donald Trump was sour?  Or that Sen. Marco Rubio who deigned show up had little relevant to say?

There was some Republican class.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley offered a well-delivered and gracious partisan response.

She noted, “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

Both Gov. Haley and President Obama are asking for civility in political discourse, and the loudest voices are rejecting that.  Republicans attacked Haley because she said that Republicans needed to own their part in the “erosion of public trust.”

Crass responses to Nikki Haley’s comments suggest that the state of the Union is disruptively divided and weakened by the toxic nature of political discourse.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available for preorder at



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