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Opinion

Missing from State of the Union: Obama's audacity of hope -- to help 'most vulnerable'

If President Obama is really committed to 'win the future,' he needs more than modest, bipartisan reforms. He needs bold plans to lift up America's most vulnerable, for the sake of the nation.

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Backed away from greatest challenges

The president mentioned clean energy in the context of business, but replaced his campaign pledge to tackle climate change with a commitment to providing 80 percent of our power in 2035 through clean energy, including controversial sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and clean coal. Gone, too, was the promise of an intrepid cap-and-trade scheme – which passed the House but failed in the Senate – that would have reined in carbon emissions.

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Obama discussed how education reform can boost high school graduation rates and proposed new measures to improve college affordability, but did not address the growing income inequality that education alone cannot solve.

In 2009, our national poverty rate hit a 15-year high, with one in seven Americans living below the poverty line. This has happened alongside a long-term trend toward greater income inequality, with 23.5 percent of all income going to the top one percent of earners in 2007 (compared to only 8.9 percent in 1976).

The president acknowledged that “the success of our people” is as important as corporate profits and overall economic growth. And he warned that spending cuts should not be carried out “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

But he did not use the opportunity to remind Americans that growth coupled with escalating inequity is simply not enough. Nor did he remind us of Gandhi’s famous lesson that, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

The speech took a turn towards addressing systemic problems when the president mentioned the health-care spending albatross and his openness to any idea to bring down costs. But he fell short by only giving mention to the Republican solution of reform aimed at reining in frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.

The discarded notion of a public option now feels like a distant memory. The truth is that the public option was probably one of the few ways to truly stanch soaring health-care costs while ensuring that all remain insured, but the president backed away from that approach before the health care bill even passed. His stated openness to new ideas is refreshing, but until those ideas represent something more radical than tort reform, it’s unclear how we can genuinely “slow” costs, must less reduce them.

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