Calling for Bipartisanship—President Obama’s Final State of the Union Speech

On Jan. 12, President Obama delivered his last State of the Union address. Expressing a hopeful tone, the president urged Americans and those in Congress to tone down the growing rancor and suspicion between Republicans and Democrats in order to strive for a brighter future. 

Early in his speech, Obama countered the doom and gloom talk that has prevailed during recent presidential candidate debates. 

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” said the president. “All the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air.”

The president instead focused his optimism on the increase in job creation and the declining deficit since he took office. The president also minimized the fighting and chaos in the Middle East as something that does not pose an existential threat to the U.S.

The president also urged for more bipartisanship. He praised Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for leading efforts in December that culminated in a budget deal and extended tax cuts for working class families. The president, however, sullenly reflected on the growing enmity between the country’s two political parties.

“The future we want—opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids—all that is within our reach,” Obama said. “But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates.
It will only happen if we fix our politics.”

The president also promised to continue fighting for particular policy changes in a number of areas, whether through congressional statute or executive action. Several of the president’s policy changes would directly affect states.

Medical Care: President Obama asked for more funding to fight heroin abuse and cure cancer, which have become leading bipartisan issues. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Democrat, are pushing for bipartisan legislation that would expand prevention efforts and increase access to drugs used to fight heroin overdoses, which has become increasingly important as many states have seen an uptick in heroin overdose-related deaths. The recently passed omnibus bill also provides funding to combat prescription drug abuse and a $2 billion boost for the National Institutes of Health to help cure cancer.

Education: The president reaffirmed his efforts to make the first two years of community college free and eliminate the cost of Pre-K. The recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides a $250 million grant program for states to further develop preschool programs, and some Republican lawmakers would prefer a similar solution to lowering the cost of community colleges by giving states the authority and flexibility to determine higher education policy.

Environment: The president promised to keep fighting climate change. The Obama administration released the final version of the Clean Power Plan—the cornerstone in his fight against climate change—last year that sets emission targets for states’ power sectors, with specific targets designed for each state based on its level of electricity generated from coal, oil, natural gas and renewables such as wind, solar and hydropower. Under the rule, states will be able to develop their own plans to meet the emissions targets, but failure to do so will result in the imposition of a federal plan by the Environmental Protection Agency. Several states sued the federal government, halting the president’s cornerstone achievement on environmental policy from taking effect.

Criminal Justice: The president expressed the need to enact criminal justice reform. Obama supports efforts to expand Residential Substance Abuse Treatment programs at the state and local levels and to give resources to state and local agencies to improve success rates for those people who are released from prison. Congressional lawmakers have also made important steps in criminal justice reform recently. On the same day as the president’s speech, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the Second Chance Reauthorization Act and Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act. The CSG Justice Center has played an important role in this area. More information can be found here.

Cuban Embargo: President Obama has taken steps to normalize relations with Cuba but needs congressional legislation to permanently lift the embargo. Several state leaders have already travelled to Cuba to participate in trade missions including Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a group of state legislators from Iowa and Missouri’s Trade Manager Ann Pardalos. The president hopes to eliminate the embargo, which has only isolated Cuba and has “failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America,” Obama said in his speech.  

The official Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address was given by Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. The governor criticized Obama for not doing enough to keep America safe, making health insurance less affordable and increasing the national debt. But Haley also spoke of the need for more bipartisanship.

“While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone,” said Haley. “There is more than enough blame to go around.”

Although, it remains unclear whether bipartisanship will emerge this election year, there is hope that the president and lawmakers could make some headway on certain policies. Late last year, lawmakers worked together to avoid a government shutdown, extend tax breaks for Americans and pass education reform. These policies required support by members of both parties and may foreshadow more progress in the months to come.