Politics

01.28.14

The Biggest Broken Promises from Last Year’s State of the Union

The State of the Union address is always a long list of idealistic political projects. Looking back at Obama’s speech from last year shows just how little of it ever comes to pass.

The State of the Union is upon us, which means another round of new policies, proposals, and priorities from the president. Of course, that raises the question—what happened to the ideas in last year’s glorified listicle?

By my count, the 2013 State of the Union had more than 20 discrete proposals, covering a wide variety of concerns, from income inequality and economic growth, to climate change and immigration, to foreign policy and education reform. In a lot of ways, in fact, it was a concrete follow-up to the inaugural address, where President Obama outlined an ambitious vision for liberal governance.

And how did it fare? Not too well. To wit, here are the seven biggest ideas from last year’s address that either failed, or never got off the ground to begin with.

On climate change: “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

Of the problems faced by the United States—and humanity—climate change is the most serious. Indeed, if current projections are any indication, we’re poised for decades of more frequent, intense natural disasters, with terrible consequences for hundreds of millions of people, and especially so for those who live in the world’s poor, coastal areas. 
 
To his credit, Obama has made climate change a priority for his administration. But he needs partners in Congress, and between Republicans in the House and skeptical Democrats in the Senate, climate change legislation failed to make headway in 2013. With that said, this year promises some good news: Obama’s EPA is set to release tough emissions rules for coal power plants. 
 
On the minimum wage: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. We should be able to get that done.”

The most you can say for this is that it has solid support from the Democratic establishment, and indeed, House and Senate lawmakers are pushing for a $10 minimum wage, instead of Obama’s call for an increase to $9. But Republicans—who have already taken the axe to food stamps and unemployment insurance—have no interest in raising pay for low-income workers. And so, the proposal will languish. 
 
On education:“I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” 
 
Specifically, Obama called for a $75 billion investment in preschool programs over the next ten years. If passed, we wouldn’t have universal pre-K, but we would come close, and in the process, do a tremendous amount of good for low-income and minority kids. 
 
Not only has Congress left this to wither, but—by allowing the sequester to happen—its responsible for slashing existing preschool funding, removing tens of thousands of children from Head Start. It’s as if our lawmakers heard this proposal to help kids, and decided to respond with a plan to grind them in the dirt instead. 
 
On immigration reform: “Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made —putting more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.” 
 
“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship—a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” 
 
There was a point last year where it looked like this would happen. A handful of Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, had reached an agreement with Senate Democrats, and the chamber passed a proposal that contained a path to citizenship and strong border security measures. It was a classic Washington compromise, but, thanks to the House GOP, it went down in flames. 
 
Bolstered by the right-wing grassroots, conservative lawmakers denounced amnesty, cratered Rubio’s career, and left the GOP leadership scrambling to find a piecemeal alternative that could satisfy the whims of their angry base and its legislative avatars.

At the moment, House Republicans are giving the effort another go, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. 
 
On equal rights: “I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.” 
 
It suffices to say that nothing has happened on this score, and I would be shocked to see that change in 2014. Instead, what we should expect is another year of Republican missteps on gender—both rhetorical and substantive—giving new fodder to the Democrats’ “war on women” slogan. 
 
On gun control: “Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. 
 
Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned. Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.” 
 
Again, when Obama made this statement, there was hope that Congress would get its act together. Democrats and some Republicans were united in support of universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But four Democrats joined with the rest of the GOP caucus to maintain a filibuster and kill the legislation. 
 
As for America’s mass shootings? They’re ongoing
 
On job creation: “A year and a half ago, I put forward an American Jobs Act that independent economists said would create more than 1 million new jobs. And I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda. I urge this Congress to pass the rest.” 
 
With high unemployment, and even worse long-term unemployment, it’s clear that we still need a burst of stimulus to increase demand, tighten the labor market, and improve the economy. Not only is that not forthcoming—thanks to a Republican opposition that doesn’t seem to believe in the ability of government to improve conditions—but we’re moving in the opposite direction: As of the beginning of this year, we’ve yanked emergency unemployment insurance from hundreds of thousands of families. 
 
In other words, as far as the economy is concerned, 2014 is shaping up to be a year when we make things worse.