Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

"Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis."

- Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

Watson Institute Faculty Respond to State of the Union Address

President Obama's State of the Union Address, January 20, 2015


This was a very good State of the Union speech, but its biggest omission was a sensible energy policy to take advantage of the once-in-a-generation political opportunity of steeply falling oil prices in a healthy economy.  

The speech was progressive, ambitious, and exactly what Americans have been wanting from President Obama for a long time.  Obama hit the right notes about the need to create economic opportunities for the American middle class.  Still, he missed an opportunity to reinforce his message by proposing to increase the federal gasoline tax now, at a rare moment when it is politically palatable to do so.  Thanks to falling oil prices, consumers could handle a small increase in the price of gasoline.  An increase in the gasoline tax is desperately needed to fund public transportation, improve infrastructure, and discourage environmentally harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Subsidies for fossil fuels should also be cut, freeing up funds for renewables and a smarter electrical grid. Obama said, “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan.” He is right, but he could have gone further.  A sustained decrease in the price of oil like the one in the last six months is rare thing, something we have not seen since the 1980s.  Obama, and Congress, should seize the opportunity for sensible energy reform.

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Jeff Colgan
Richard Holbrooke Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies


For the first time since the aftermath of the fiscal cliff negotiations in 2012, the President has proposed a series of major reforms across different areas of tax policy.  These reforms would increase the tax burden on the wealthy in order to benefit the middle class.  The direction of this move is not surprising, given the continued conversation about inequality and the rising power of the progressive wing of the Democratic party.  But what is striking is the nature of these reforms.  Rather than simply seeking to extract the most possible from the wealthy – a position that too many progressives support and that would backfire both politically and economically – the President has targeted his proposals at a number of glaring inefficiencies that both hinder economic growth and make our system less fair.

The proposal that best exemplifies this balance is the President's call to eliminate “stepped-up basis” - a little-known (to most families) tax loophole that allows wealthy individuals to entirely escape taxation on their capital gains so long as they don't sell until they die.  This provision was originally created out of the recognition that it is hard to know how much your grandmother paid for the various possessions that collected in her attic; but the vast majority of wealth that now takes advantage of this provision are financial assets with high-quality records.  Eliminating this provision will not just mean that everyone pays the same tax on capital gains; it will also eliminate an economic inefficiency known as “lock-in,” in which individuals do not profitably redeploy capital elsewhere in order to avoid taxation. 

In short, eliminating “stepped-up basis" would lead to both a fairer and more efficient tax system, in the process raising hundreds of billions of dollars to relieve fiscal pressure elsewhere.

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John Friedman
Associate Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs


President Obama frankly acknowledged that the United States has been too quick to involve itself in foreign wars, but then suggested he may plunge into a new one.

First, he eloquently warned against making “rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads, when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military.”  He said recent years have taught Americans “costly lessons” about the danger of “getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.” 

Then, in a single sentence that went by so fast one might have missed it, Obama said he would ask Congress to pass “a resolution authorizing the use of force” against the Islamic State insurgency.  He gave no hint of what such a resolution would embody, whether it would be for a limited duration, what sort of force it would authorize, or how extensive a region it would affect. If Obama pursues this campaign for a Congressional resolution authorizing “use of force” in a new war, that sentence may prove to be the most far-reaching in this State of the Union speech.

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Stephen Kinzer
Journalist in Residence


As expected, President Obama took advantage of his State of the Union address to urge Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba. His comments on recent changes to Cuba policy once again stressed the importance of “trying something new” in light of 50 years of failure, thereby promoting both “democratic values” in Cuba and goodwill throughout the Americas. The segment easily drew the loudest cheers of any topic covered in the foreign policy segment of the speech. That show of approval corresponds to popular sentiment more broadly, with 60 percent of Americans expressing support for normalization, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. The Cuba material was rounded out by an effective bit of political theater, with a welcome to Obama’s special guest, freed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who mouthed “thank you, thank you” in response. His gesture was in turn countered by Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, an opponent of the new measures, who reportedly brought as his special guest Rosa María Payá, daughter of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who died under contested circumstances in a 2012 car crash. Speaker of the House John Boehner also took a performative stance on this front in inviting Cuban dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, also known as “Antúnez."

Nevertheless, the Cuba segment bore a more uncomfortable relationship to the foreign policy material that surrounded it, despite a stated unifying emphasis on “smarter American leadership.” In particular, the preceding section devoted to Russia began with an assertion that bigger nations should not bully smaller ones, a theme that Obama conspicuously did not pursue in his remarks on Cuba. Whatever implicit parallels may have been intended (in the matter of sanctions as well), the imbalance of power between the US and Cuba has been notably marginalized both here and in the President’s December 17 announcement of diplomatic normalization.

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Jennifer Lambe
Assistant Professor of History


I find these speeches always to be laundry/wish lists of pet program announcements and sly political maneuvers. This time was no different. I found last night's address to be an extraordinary speech nonetheless. Obama's delivery was superb – as always. After he's gone from office we'll miss this kind of effortlessly articulate oratory that we've now come to expect from the President, but which not many of his predecessors have been able to deliver.

President Obama took a justifiable victory lap in this speech, touting the fruits of a long-overdue economic recovery that we seem now to be fully experiencing. He pitched his “middle class economics” line – on behalf of shared prosperity and the making of smart investments in our people and infrastructure.

What most struck me, though, was that, notwithstanding the hyperpartisan, divided political environment that the 2014 election result has bequeathed to us, he eloquently revisited the “one America” call from his fabled 2004 convention speech and his historic 2008 campaign, calling us all to find cooperative higher ground on behalf of America's shared goals and values. Here his eloquence ran ahead of the logic of his argument, I fear. The fact is that, even among Democrats, we cannot all agree about trade liberalization, about policing and the meaning of Ferguson, about abortion (Lord knows!) or about how to respond to ISIS. We cannot find common ground on voter ID laws, or “pay equity” for women, or raising the minimum wage. Given the number of veto threats he's been making since Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, President Obama must know this as well as anyone. Something about this part of the speech, despite the soaring oratory, felt manipulative and not fully honest to me.

All said, though, the address last night was a resounding success for President Obama. With this speech, as with his executive actions since last November's elections, the President has shown us that he'll be fighting for his legacy to the very end, and that despite an approaching and unavoidable lame-duck status, it would be unwise to count him out.

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Glenn Loury
Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences


As has become usual in recent State of the Union speeches, references to foreign policy represented just a small fraction of President Obama’s sixth offering.  Such references seemed especially sparse this year, when the President could draw attention instead to strong economic news and when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had inglorious outcomes, with those countries still physically decimated, unstable, and undemocratic.  President Obama strikingly framed the year that has just passed as one in which “the combat mission in Afghanistan is over” and in which the “9/11 generation” of soldiers came home.  It is clear though, that “turning the page” on the wars is turning the page on ground war, as he called for yet another authorization for military force for the primarily air battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

The challenges for the 2.5 million young men and women who have been to Iraq and/or Afghanistan were referenced when, midway through the speech, he called on American business to “hire a vet,” garnering one of the rare and longest bipartisan applause lines of the night.  That call provided only the slimmest glimpse, however, into the much more expansive and expensive ongoing costs of the last 13 years of war.  With civilians continuing to die in droves, thousands of US soldiers still in the war zones or living with severe injury at home, and trillions of dollars in war debt to be paid by future generations, the page will not be turned for years to come.

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Catherine Lutz
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies


In his State of the Union speech, President Obama stated rightly, “Today we are freer from dependence upon foreign oil than we’ve been in 30 years.” Much later in the speech he remarked, “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.  We should act like it.” How do we square these two points? 

Energy independence for America is good news on the short-term security front, but not necessarily in terms of our long-term security as inhabitants of a linked climate-societal system. Key decisions made now will reverberate for decades or even centuries, as we build infrastructure either for a safe future or reckless business as usual. Obama mentioned installing solar energy, but renewables work is still lagging badly behind what is needed and what new jobs could be created with a green infrastructure push. Instead, we are fracking our way into energy “security” as a nation, while creating an unknown set of future local and global health and environmental problems. As the President said, “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” referring, of course, to the proposed KeystoneXL megaproject. It’s time to set our sights higher than fracking.  

America needs continued leadership on the difficult political issue of climate change in 2015. The administration's joint announcement with China of targets for carbon emissions reductions in late fall – and his pledge to the Green Climate Fund – were well-timed, positive efforts to encourage other countries to step up during this pivotal year. The meeting in Paris this December marks the deadline for sealing a meaningful global deal: we have a lot of negotiating to do before then. Obama’s leadership is needed; Congress needs to follow or get out of the way.

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J. Timmons Roberts
Ittleson Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies


President Obama's State of the Union address was designed to win back the middle class voters to the Democratic Party with proposals for a middle-class tax cut, higher minimum wages, and renewed investment in education and retraining.  President Obama was not just aiming at current middle-class voters – he was also speaking to younger voters who have become disillusioned with his presidency in terms of what it has accomplished for their generation.  

The speech was not as much about content as it was about delivery – this was an energetic president who has clearly decided to rededicate himself to some of the promises he made in his first campaign in 2008.  He was giving notice to the Republicans who now control both houses of Congress – and the nation – that he has no intention of going quietly into the night in his last two years in office.

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Wendy Schiller
Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy


If there was an implicit theme to President Obama’s speech, and one that I wish had been made more explicit, it was that people are our most precious resource and we can’t afford to waste them. When children go uncared for, adolescents go uneducated, workers go unemployed, illnesses go untreated, and immigrants go unincorporated, we’re wasting precious resources. And these problems tend to compound each other: when parents lack childcare, for instance, they can’t go to school, and when they can’t go to school to retrain, they can’t find jobs and employers can’t find skilled workers. When workers don’t have sick leave and health insurance, they have little choice but to go to work ill, and spreading their illnesses and sending other workers home or to the hospital (thus raising employers’ insurance costs). When immigrants are scared to leave home, they can’t get the education or training or health care they need to maximize their contributions to their communities. And so on.

But there are solutions to these problems, and they almost invariably involve government supportwhether for childcare, higher education, job training, health care, or any other activity that improves and matches the supply and the demand for high-quality human resources. So the case for an active government, for “middle class economics,” in the President’s terminology, is practical as well as moral. We all lose when human resources are squandered, and we’ll all benefit when they’re put back to work.

In the wake of a massive housing crisis and the long-term decline of rustbelt cities like Detroit and Buffalo, I wish the President had made a similar case for the maximum utilization of physical resources. I wish he’d extended his logic to the international sphere as well, since there are far more underutilized human resources abroad than at home. But overall I think his perspective is both morally and politically defensible—even necessary—as we enter the 21st century. 

One bright spot that might go unnoticed by most commentators is the way that the President’s simultaneous call for immigration reform and the lifting of the embargo with Cuba will work to improve relations with Latin America. While they’re indispensable allies and trading partners, and vital to our national security, Latin American countries often feel ignored or taken for granted by Washington, and they’ve been particularly perturbed by both immigration politics and the embargo over the years. By trying to address both issues simultaneously, through not only legislative but executive action, President Obama could undo a lot of damage and set the stage for more productive relations going forward.

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Andrew Schrank
Olive Watson Professor of Sociology and International Studies


For students of international relations, what international relations theory perspectives did Obama’s speech reflect?

Realism: there was plenty of realism in Obama’s speech. Like a good realist, Obama assumes that the hegemon will lead the world and call the shots: “… the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how.”  America, the most powerful nation, “reserve[s] the right to act unilaterally” against terrorists [a continued defense of drone strikes].  We shouldn’t let China write the trade rules – we should write them.  Obama asked Congress to authorize use of military force against ISIS.  He made numerous references to the US as alliance leader, opposing Russian aggression and countering a rising China. 

Liberalism: most of the speech was actually focused on nation building at home – building a political community based on equality, justice, equal opportunity.  This was reflected in his extended discussion of “middle class economics.”  Liberal internationalism also made an appearance, illuminating how America should lead: we lead best when we combine military power with “strong diplomacy” (the Iran negotiations get a mention here).  We should leverage our power with coalition building and work with others to combat climate change and pandemics like Ebola. “I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action” on climate change, he stated, highlighting cooperation with China on the issue as an essential pillar.

Constructivism: this emphasizes the key role of norms, values, and identity as a basis for acting in the world.  Obama stated that he would “not relent in my determination” to shut down the Guantanamo prison: “It’s not who we are.”  But he did bring together both moral concerns and interests in his strong promotion of human rights:  “We respect human dignity…. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.

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Nina Tannenwald
Director of the International Relations Program