Panel: L-S students react to State of the Union

On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama delivered his seventh and final State of the Union Address. Billed as a glimpse into the future -- even beyond the final year of his term in office -- the speech had a different focus than his prior addresses. We asked L-S freshmen Logan Emmert and Pierson Castor (who self-profess leftward and rightward political leanings respectively) five questions to gauge their reaction to the speech.
President Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Q: First and foremost, it seemed the President strived to hit a reset button on the polarized political climate that pervades the American landscape, and to rekindle the fundamentals that make America an inherently great nation. Do you think he was successful? Will we see meaningful change that can  lead to real progress?

LE: It would be very difficult to hit a reset button on all of American politics. President Obama's intentions were absolutely in the place, especially as the two major parties become increasingly polarized. He did do a good job of convincing people of this central point, but truly meaningful change is very difficult to achieve within the confines of a speech. 

PC: President Obama didn’t make any promises he hasn’t made before. I don’t see how, with the policies that have led our country for the last eight years, we are going to make a lot of meaningful progress in the next year. He promised that he would fix our immigration system; then, he unconstitutionally granted citizenship to those who have come into this border illegally and broken this nation’s laws. Ever since he first ran for president, he has been promising to put an end to terrorism, but he has failed to come up with any successful solutions. In 2008, he promised “change we can believe in.” In 2016, we are $18 trillion in national debt, our allies no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear us. Many people who once had a good-paying full-time job with benefits now have two or three part-time jobs with no benefits at all. President Obama’s final State of the Union Address can be summarized by his response to George W. Bush’s final State of the Union Address in 2008: “The American people heard a State of the Union that didn’t reflect the America we see and didn’t address the challenges we face.”

Q: The speech conjured images of 2008, when then Senator Obama enraptured the nation with dreamy speeches that inspired the country. What do you make of this shift in strategy, given that prior States of the Union have focused on policy specifics?

LE: As he said in he first several minutes, he wanted to focus on the next five years rather than just the next year. Knowing that he won't have another official State of the Union Address, Obama probably felt (and I agree) that these big-picture topics will affect Americans more, especially as we choose our new leader later this year. I think he wanted to make sure that whoever we elect gets elected for the right reasons. 

PC: President Obama’s final State of the Union was more of a campaign speech than an address. It was nice not having the traditional long list of things you’re asking Congress to get done, but on the other hand, it wasn’t a true and honest assessment on the condition of our country. It was another feel-good speech by President Obama who cannot admit that his policies over the last eight years have failed. When he says, “We have cut three quarters of our deficits,” does he not know that the national debt has went up $9 trillion under his administration? When he claims that anyone who says the economy is going down is blowing a bunch of “political hot air,” he proves that there is a disconnect between Washington and the American people.

Q: President Obama framed his speech as a glimpse into the future, a chance to explore what America will be for years to come. Of the priorities he mentioned or did not mention, what do you think is the most important change America needs to make?

LE: The obvious one that most likely comes to the forefront of everyone's mind is the threat of terrorism. However, as the President so eloquently put it, that fear is "the type of propaganda they use to recruit." While being mindful of outside threats like ISIL, we also need to consider issues inside the country. In my opinion, we need to keep improving our economic state. (Yes, that does say keep improving, for people with gratuitous disdain for the Obama administration.) After that, many other important problems, in the realm of gun violence and general bigotry, will be easier to resolve.

PC: Part of the problem with what the president says is that he doesn’t explain how he’ll reach his goals. He might say, “We need to fight terrorism,” but then he fails to mention what our strategy will be. We live in a day and age when radical Islamic terrorism is a serious threat, so when the president says that taking them seriously is only giving them what they want, he is wrong. We need to send a strong signal to the rest of the world that if you attack America or its citizens, you’re signing your death warrant. Otherwise, no one, including terrorist organizations, is going to take us seriously.

Q: The closing section of the President's speech focused on changing the culture of our political climate. He said this was the most important issue at hand. Do you agree?

LE: It is an extremely important issue, and that seemed to be the overarching fundament of the Address. We need to be understanding, even if not in favor, of others' ideas. (In other words, don't be Trump.) We will be able to get much more done in Congress, the White House, and many other places, if we change our general political attitudes. Whether this is the most important issue is anyone's guess, but it certainly is an enormous part of America's future. 

PC: He admitted that “one of his greatest regrets” is the fact that he has not gotten rid of but furthered the tensions between Democrats and Republicans. Part of the reason this is true is that he always treated Republicans as if we were the enemy. When we spoke out against the failing Iran-Nuclear Deal, President Obama compared the GOP to the Iranians who chant, “Death to America!” When it comes to climate change, we never argued that we shouldn’t take care of the planet. What we say is that it is not a top priority right now. History proves that weather repeats a cycle of switching between global warming and global cooling, and we should focus on issues like the economy, foreign relations, and homeland security which we can control, rather than the weather which we cannot. But, just last night, President Obama said we are clueless.

Q: Obviously the President is a gifted orator, but many have criticized his speeches for a lack of substance. Did you find this speech substantive? With which specific point did you most agree and disagree?

LE: While watching the Address, I felt that it was extremely powerful, for lack of a better term, as evidenced by the sheer number of standing ovations. In retrospect, the speech did somewhat lack substance. President Obama usually likes to keep his statements very general and impossible for any decent human to argue with. In contrast, there were, I felt, enough specific resolutions, such as the plan for cancer research, to keep this year's address from being a goodbye fluff-piece. I agreed with mostly everything he said. I appreciated his hopeful, if not realistic, idea that he could still get things done even though it is an election year, and many Americans are getting somewhat impatient for our next President to be determined. 

PC: The truth is that you don’t get things done by making a speech. It was a good speech as far as it told the American people what President Obama’s goals are this year. However, much of what he mentioned in the address are things that he has already been pushing for. I liked the fact that President Obama is starting a program to further research for cancer. I also like that he wants to work on criminal justice reform and Social Security, but it is hard to know exactly what he means based on all he said in the speech.

--Logan Emmert, Special to and Pierson Castor, Columnist; Questions framed by Benjamin Pontz, Editor-In-Chief

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