Saturday, January 24, 2015

State of the Union Speech to a House Divided

The State of the Union in a House Divided I watched the State of the Union Address the other evening. I found it remarkable how time and again the Republicans sat there like logs in a row. The only times they stood up were when the President touched upon something patriotic, or the fight against terrorism, or singled out someone in the audience. Even all that good news did not cheer them up, it only made red-faced John Boehner look more miserable. They did not applaud the idea of guaranteeing workers seven paid sick days a year. They did not applaud the idea of equal pay for women. They did not applaud the idea of a tax credit for daycare. They did not applaud the idea of making community colleges tuition-free again. When it came time for the Republican – slash – Tea Party response, their spokesperson, Iowa’s rookie Senator Joni Ernst, harped on your Republican Congress, which you elected, as if winning an election in which only 36 of the eligible voters bothered to show up was a mandate from the people. Hell, that wasn’t even a quorum. I watched the speech on MSNBC. They ran a continual poll during the entire affair, that asked, “Do you agree with what President Obama is saying?” Only once during the one hour speech did the level of approval dip to seventy percent, among independents. Among Democrats, as would be expected, the agreement rate was at 90% or better. Among Republicans, the poll showed a surprising agreement rate consistently at 85% or higher. On the same question posed while the Republican response was being made, their spokesperson scored 30% or less in agreement across the board. Only on the hot button issue of Obamacare did they score reasonable agreement from those participating in the poll, and that at around 55%. But Obamacare is deeply misunderstood and loudly overplayed by Republicans. On what the Republicans hope will be a hot button issue, the Keystone Pipeline vote, agreement was hard to come by in light of the facts: the job creation argument falls apart when most of those jobs will be temporary and when the economy is adding tens of thousands of new jobs a month and has been doing so for, literally, years. Add to that the fact that America has suddenly re-emerged as the number one oil exporter in the world, and the pipeline seems somehow much less relevant. I hope the Republican leadership is paying attention. A different poll taken the day after the speech showed strong approval for the President and his “vision for America” that included 43% of fellow Republicans, a higher percentage than expressed disapproval. The leaders of the party pledge to overturn Obamacare and to pass the Keystone Pipeline bill. Are they that out of touch? Or are we that stupid? The Affordable Care Act is law and, if at first cumbersome, is working. The Pipeline bill will be vetoed. Meanwhile, job creation continues. Rather than looking for ways to protect the one percent from paying higher taxes, the Republicans might better spend their energies convincing the one percent that a happy workforce is a productive workforce – and that access to affordable health insurance and a decent wage are key ingredients to insure that happiness. Temporary pipeline jobs are not our best option. This is not Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. This is not Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican Party. This is no longer the Grand Old Party. It is just the Old Party; the wood is old and rotten. I particularly enjoyed the President’s suggestion to anyone in Congress who believes a family in America can make ends meet on $15,000 a year: try it. He arrived at that figure simply by multiplying the minimum wage by a forty hour week for a year with the current Federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour. A family of four would have to earn $10,000 more per year just to reach the poverty line; even at $10.10 per hour, a wage earner would fall short of the poverty line by four thousand dollars if he or she had a family of four to support and was the only breadwinner. Obama was talking to a room filled with millionaires with a base annual salary of $174,000 ($83.65 per hour or $669.20 per day) and the best and most inclusive health care plan in the nation. It would be fun to watch them spend a year without, at minimum wage – sort of a Trading Places scenario. Better yet, perhaps they could vote themselves a pay cut to that level, which might weed out people who are in it for the money. Yeah – like that would happen. The median income for an American is just over $51,000 – three times what a single worker could earn at minimum wage. The median worth for a household is $56,355. A Congressman would be hard pressed even to make ends meet on that. The median worth of a member of Congress is $1,029,505. And yet one in six Americans lives below the poverty line. Twenty percent of American children live in poverty. Our members of Congress do not seem to have their finger on the pulse of real America. They believe they are real America, that everybody gets a new cell phone every four months, a new car every two years, and internet access. They do not seem to accept the moral responsibility of helping the general populace. They don’t see us. Yet the God so many of them claim to believe in told us to help those less fortunate than ourselves, over and over again. There are no exclusion clauses in the Covenant. The Republicans should be careful about what they don’t do. Yes, they won control of both houses of Congress. But that is more a sign of voter disillusionment than endorsement. Ironically, those citizens who failed to vote essentially cast their ballots to continue the same patterns that earned Congress approval ratings in the low teens and a full thirty points lower at any time than the President. . Voters, are you listening? Not voting wastes the one thing you can do proactively to effect change. I know that Democracy does not really exist. Billionaires pick the candidates for us. But our choices still can send a message to the elected. Choose your message carefully and act on it. Not voting is a vote: for stagnation, as proven yet again in the 2014 elections. And shame on those Democratic candidates who did not want the President to campaign for them. His approval rating at the time was hovering around 40%, but Congress was at 12. Shame on us. H. L. Mencken once said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Our President, however, is no cynic like Mencken. Obama closed his speech beautifully, retaining the hope that we are all one nation as intended. He knows better. He must, especially after six years in the White House battling Congress and barely unspoken prejudice. It is not naiveté that prompted his words, it is holding the American people and their representatives in Congress to a higher standard. Do we deserve his confidence and his optimism? Joseph de Maistre, French lawyer of the early Nineteenth Century, famously said, “In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve.” An election is coming. Ultimately, it is on us.

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