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Professor evaluates State of the Union proposals

Carolyn Hutyra | Thursday, February 14, 2013

President Barack Obama outlined a number of policy changes during his 5th State of the Union Address to joint sessions of Congress on Tuesday night, changes that professor Daniel Graff said targeted the most important concerns for Americans right now.

Graff, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History, described the policy prescriptions in the address as relatively tame, due to the limits placed on the President by a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. He said he found it disheartening that a bolder pathway to rebuild the American middle class was not offered.

“I certainly think he [Obama] wants to rebuild the American dream of equality, opportunity and upward mobility,” said Graff. “But he faces significant hurdles in the House, and this has prompted him to think strategically small.”

Graff said he was pleased by the attention Obama gave to the nation’s economic status and the job market during the speech.Graff said he appreciated the emphasis put on raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, since the minimum wage has been declining in real value since 1968. Obama proposed raising minimum wage to $9 per hour.

“It is way past time to protect our poorest workers from poverty, and this will help,” Graff said.

Encouraging Congress to pass the necessary legislation to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, move toward energy independence and increase hiring will be important, Graff said. The president said he plans to address problems of unemployment, with a specific focus on the crisis of the long-term unemployed.

“I watched the president’s speech with appreciation for his articulation of how critically important it is to continue to utilize the federal government’s toolkit to help grow the economy in ways that will help working people,” Graff said.

Small-minded strategies will not be enough to bring about the large-scale changes, Graff said. “Closing tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy, and improving education for individuals, while good in and of themselves, will not put a large dent in the inequality and poverty that now define our nation,” Graff said.

The president’s address showed concern for these problems, but did not propose a remedy to the situation, according to Graff. In order to bring about what Graff referred to as “a new Golden age,” he claimed a push toward more progressive income taxation would be necessary. Along with this, Graff said the cap on payroll taxes would need to be eliminated to encourage the wealthy to contribute more to Social Security, Medicare and other social welfare programs.

“Most important [would be] actively promoting labor law reform to empower workers through unions to increase job security and convert profits into wages.”

For junior Sean Brady, a political science and philosophy double major, he said one of the President’s strongest messages was the one that remained unspoken.

“By remaining silent on Israel, Obama has made a strong statement that the national interests of Israel are not in the best interests of the United States,” Brady said.

Brady also found Obama’s focus on gun control to be rather powerful, especially noting the presence of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a high-profile victim of gun violence, who was shown several times during the segment.

For Graff, however, Obama covered the most important ground for Americans in his words on the economy.

“I was happy to see the President focus so much on the economy, recognizing that despite the indicators of recovery. … For many Americans, things are not heading in the right direction,” Graff said. “Or at least, they’re not heading there fast enough.”