Obama previews State of Union with ‘comeback’ address: Can Americans take heart?

President Obama on Saturday highlighted what he called the US economy's comeback during his weekly radio address. Unemployment has dropped to 5.6 percent, although wages remain stagnant.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Barack Obama gives his 2014 State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and Speaker John Boehner look on.

Laying the ground for Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama on Saturday previewed a likely theme: the depth and extent of what he called America’s economic “comeback” – and how to keep it rolling.

The US economy's struggles have dogged Obama’s tenure and could yet cloud his legacy, especially since America’s first African-American president oversaw an era where median black wealth has dropped by 34 percent, according to Pew. (White wealth has climbed nearly 3 percent under Obama.)

Republicans have alleged for years that progressive Democrats, led by the president, have throttled the economy by making it more difficult to do business in America. Entrepreneurship is down, they say, and millions of Americans have simply given up on work, which means the sinking unemployment numbers are skewed. Democrats point to the fact that the president inherited an economic malaise not of his making, taking office during the country's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Both sides have good points, but the president on Saturday at least provided one snapshot of what most economists agree are hopeful indicators slowly pulling the country out of six years of economic torpor. Most significantly, the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.6 percent, putting the US close to what economists generally see as “full employment,” in essence what economists call an acceptable jobless rate that keeps inflation in check.

“Our job now is to make sure that every American feels that they’re a part of our country’s comeback,” Obama said in his weekly address from the White House. “That’s what I’ll focus on in my State of the Union – how to build on our momentum, with rising wages, growing incomes, and a stronger middle class.”

The brightening economic outlook puts Obama in a strong position for a first of his presidency: a State of the Union address where he faces Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

In the Republican weekly address, Rep. Steve Russell of Oklahoma said the GOP plan addresses America’s economic woes more deeply.

Republicans will push “to lift the burden on small business,” and repeal Obamacare’s 30-hour work-week definition “so we can get people working again full-time,” he said. The GOP plan also would include creating the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and forcing federal agencies to regulate with “more honesty, thrift, and transparency.”

“We have the resources to transform our economy, the talents to work together to solve our problems, and the grit to lead in a dangerous world that looks to us for hope and stability—an American beacon that still shines when others only provide a dim view of the future,” Representative Russell said.

One in four Americans now say conditions in the economy are either excellent or good, up from 1 in 6 a year ago. And, according to a recent Pew survey, more Americans have more confidence in Obama’s vision of the economy than the one put forth by Republicans.

But that survey, conducted from Jan. 7 to Jan. 11, also suggested that America still has doubts about an economic resurgence and the plight of the middle class under Obama. More than half of Americans still feel they can’t keep up with the cost of living, and only 6 percent of Americans report that their paychecks are outpacing their household outlays. While unemployment has dropped, wages remain persistently stagnant.

In what’s likely a preview of his Tuesday State of the Union speech, Obama on Saturday highlighted three letter-writers from whose testimony he says he has taken heart about the country’s “resilience.”

Colorado sub shop owner Carolyn Reed, who expanded her business with a loan from the Small Business Administration; Victor Fugate of Butler, Mo., who was unemployed but says he found a job and more economic security through college loans and Obamacare; and Sgt. James Gibson, who just became a new father after overcoming serious battle wounds from his time in Afghanistan.

“2014 was the fastest year for job growth since the 1990s,” Obama said. “Unemployment fell faster than any year since 1984.... America’s resurgence is real.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.