Obama’s State of the Union Leaves Much Unsaid

President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 address to the nation largely avoided talking about looming battles on abortion, Obamacare and immigration reform.

President Barack Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address on Jan. 20.
President Barack Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union address on Jan. 20. (photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday, touting his accomplishments thus far and focusing on a domestic agenda for the next two years that aims to strengthen the financial situation of families and help forge a 21st-century economy.

“At this moment  —  with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production  —  we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on earth,” the president said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come.”

The president announced he would propose a budget to Congress and go barnstorm the country to raise support for his final two-year agenda, which includes items such as government assistance to the middle class, such as an expanded $3,000 per child per year tax credit, seven days paid sick leave and child care.

But when it came to controversial major issues like abortion, marriage and immigration reform, the president largely sidestepped, only briefly mentioning each.

“What’s relevant are the things he did not talk about,” said Russell Shaw, a longtime Church watcher and former secretary for public affairs for the U.S. bishops.

“It’s what he didn’t talk about that is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where the Catholic Church has a serious stake in this.”

Shaw said that President Obama knows that his domestic agenda “is not going to be enacted by this Congress” and was instead “trying to set the terms of the presidential debate of 2016.”

“That’s what the program he laid out yesterday was all about.”

Many of the specifics of Obama’s speech “matched up well” with Catholic social thought, according to Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

“Many of the specific proposals he made were actually pretty good, from a Catholic social-teachings perspective,” commented Schneck, citing references to long-standing priorities of the U.S. Church, such as immigration reform, minimum wage for the poor, support for unions, prohibition of torture and normalizing relations with Cuba. “These are all things that we’ve heard the USCCB asking for in specific requests,” he said, “not to just this administration, but to many past administrations over the last decade or so.”

The problem, Schneck observed, is that, despite the parallels, the president has two glaring exceptions that strike at the core of the Church’s social teaching: his stance on life issues and same-sex “marriage.”

“Both are contrary to the Church’s teachings and are at odds with our understanding of human life as the foundation for all Catholic social teaching,” he said.

During his speech, the president said that while he and lawmakers may not agree on “a woman’s right to choose” abortion, he said they could agree on the reduced number of abortions, limiting teen pregnancies and “that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.” While the Catholic Church has welcomed life-affirming women’s health care in the Affordable Care Act, the administration and the Church are still fighting in court over how the HHS mandate requires employers to provide free contraception, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who gave the Republican State of the Union rebuttal, did mention the unborn: “We will defend life because protecting the vulnerable is an important measure of any society.”


Immigration Reform Avoided

The largest issue that was expected to get extensive play from the president, yet didn’t, was immigration reform. During Obama’s address, he only mentioned the word “immigration” twice, despite it having been the subject of a major prime-time address back in November and already having become a controversial issue in the incoming Congress.

Acknowledging the passions over immigration reform, the president said, “Surely, we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child.”

Schneck, a board member of Democrats for Life, who was a signatory to a letter to Congress before the March for Life calling immigration reform a “pro-life issue,” had expected Obama to give it more attention.

“I was a little bit surprised at how little ink it had gotten in the evening on both the GOP side and the president’s side,” he said. “Because it’s been a major issue for both sides over the last few years.” 

Ernst, in her GOP rebuttal, also carefully avoided any direct mention of immigration and only vaguely referred to rolling back “executive overreach” — a reference to Obama’s moves late last year to implement new immigration-related policies through executive actions, following the failure of the last Congress to pass comprehensive immigration-reform legislation.

Only Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., in his Spanish-language response for the GOP, mentioned immigration explicitly, calling for “permanent solutions for our immigration system, to secure our borders, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy” according to a Politico translation.

According to Shaw, Obama’s decision to avoid immigration may be political realism on his part.

“He realizes he has bypassed the possibility of working out some kind of compromise on some forms of immigration reform with Republicans, and he doesn’t expect any further to come of the reform movement for the next few years, so why talk about it?”

Shaw said that, from Obama’s point of view, “he has done what he could and will leave it at that.”


Obamacare’s Future and Economic Issues

The future battles over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, were staked out between the president and the GOP, as Obama promised to veto changes that would put the law at risk and Ernst pledged that the GOP would “repeal and replace” the health-care law.

However, while Republicans seem agreed upon repealing the law, the party has not coalesced around a plan to replace it.

William Luckey, a political science and economics professor at Christendom College in northern Virginia and an adjunct scholar of the Alabama-based Ludwig von Mises Institute, expected the GOP-controlled Congress would limit itself to minimal fixes during Obama’s presidency, such as allowing people to carry insurance across state lines to reduce the cost of insurance.

“They’ll probably change the worst parts, but the thing is they are going to wait for a Republican president in 2016, and then they’ll repeal it,” he said.

Luckey said the president’s proposed tax increases and “stifling” regulations on the economy have to be seen in light of the Church’s social teaching as well.

When such measures are implemented, he said, “the economy gets worse; therefore, people’s lives get worse; when people’s lives get worse, they have less money to spend and therefore can do less.”

And he suggested the president’s proposal to grant two free years of community college appears to function as a “vote-getting scheme” for his party.

“Who’s going to pay for it? He said it’s for the middle class; well, the middle class is going to pay the taxes for it.”

However, the economics professor said that the president’s call for an end to the embargo with Cuba — the president gave mention to Pope Francis in calling for this next step in normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations — would probably be good for Cubans, although it risked sending the signal of legitimizing communist rule there.

“Embargoes don’t work; they never did,” he said. “Cuba’s been communist since 1959, and it hasn’t worked. The thing is: Embargoes punish the people, not the dictators. I’m sure Fidel Castro and his brother haven’t missed a meal, but the people have.”


'Casualness' on Foreign Policy

In another key foreign-policy area, seeking peace in the troubled Middle East and addressing the threat of terror attacks by radical Islamists, some observers found the president’s remarks disconcerting.

While President Obama talked about the war in Afghanistan’s combat mission being over, he did not mention that more U.S. troops are headed to Iraq to fight the Islamic State terror group. And, although the president asked Congress for authorization to go after IS, he also did not mention the war in Syria or efforts to bring peace there.

Commented Shaw, “Many people, and I am one of them, were taken aback by the president’s casualness about the range of crises in the Middle East at the present time and the spread of terrorism to Europe and a terrorist threat which is once again seriously threatening the U.S.”

Added Shaw, “He either ought to recognize these things [if he hasn’t], or he recognizes them and would rather not talk about them.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.





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