Pundits typically focus on the State of the Union as something of a campaign statement, even when there is no campaign to be run. For nonprofits, the SOTU serves more as a blueprint of what the incumbent president is likely to emphasize in the coming year and what might get a lot less attention. As such, it’s a template for nonprofit action. The actions that the president suggested constituted his agenda of economic populism would merit support from social-justice minded nonprofits, and the items that got scant or no attention would be the components of a nonprofit narrative to move the White House and Congress to pay attention. The president presented a template; now the nonprofit sector has to figure out what it is going to do in response.
Here is a summary of what was in the president’s SOTU template:
- Nonpartisan Middle Class Economics: The take-away theme of the speech was clearly the focus on the middle class with an agenda of programs and incentives to protect, stabilize, and strengthen working families. The president defined middle-class economics as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” For working families, the president mentioned “helping folks afford childcare, college, healthcare, a home, retirement,” and proposed initiatives in the arenas of childcare (more childcare slots affordable “for every middle-class and low-income family” plus a new tax cut of up to $3,000 a year per child), college (free community college), paid sick leave (seven days of paid sick leave and maternity leave), and an increase in the minimum wage. He also referenced but offered no specifics on reduced mortgage premiums. A passing reference to the need for “laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice” was contrasted with these policy proposals that will “make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families.” While some people have characterized the president’s speech as his stab at economic populism, it was strikingly devoid of connection to one of the Democratic Party’s historic mainstays, organized labor. It might be in part an effort to remove an ideological barrier to his stated interest in working with Republicans, since the GOP is as stridently opposed to unions as ever, or it might be that the job increases that the president touted in his speech—11 million new jobs over five years—have often been in the area of low wage, service sector jobs and not those that can break one out of the wage stagnation that has been the legacy of the Great Recession. The president, however, skipped over the fact that the economic recovery during his presidency has significantly benefited the nation’s top one percent, widening the gap between the super-rich and the rest of the nation, so that these policy initiatives may in fact be aimed at rebalancing policies that have largely ignored the needs of the middle class people who politicians of both parties extol as their top priority.
- The missing nonprofit sector: Search as we might, the president didn’t mention nonprofits, charities, or even voluntary action. Commentators typically play a game with the State of the Union, searching for the president’s mentions of this or that or counting which words get the most mentions. But the complete absence of the nonprofit sector as a factor in the solutions outlined by the president should be of concern as the nation begins its long nightmare of the 2016 national elections. The president didn’t include even a feint toward job creation in the nonprofit sector nor a reference to the importance of nonprofits and charities in delivering the beneficial programs he suggested. We can surmise a nonprofit role in much of what the president discussed, but he didn’t surface the sector in which some 14 million people work. Much of the social progress the president referenced as having occurred in his first six years of office—the expansion of health insurance coverage, jobs for returning veterans in the civilian economy, the actions of the administration on climate change—bears the fingerprints of the nonprofit sector. It’s probably too much to ask that the president acknowledge how much of his agenda past and future has depended on what the nonprofit sector does. But the sector does not have to agree to be ignored and act like a lesser partner.
- Eradicating poverty: Poverty must be something over there, not here. When President Obama mentioned poverty, it was in his statement about eradicating extreme poverty in a paragraph on West Africa. The president did make that call for a minimum wage increase, noting how impossible it is to support a family on $15,000 a year, but poverty is not going to be eradicated in the U.S. with a boost in the minimum wage. For many poor families, the challenge isn’t one of young people getting two years of free community college, but underemployed, unemployed, and long-term unemployed adults getting trained and placed in decent jobs that pay decent, livable wages. ($10.10 an hour, the proposal from Democrats in Congress, is a great boost over the current minimum wage but far short of a living wage, no matter where one lives in the United States.) It is certainly striking that the president’s speech elides over poverty while his defeated adversary from 2012, Mitt Romney, has announced that issues of domestic poverty and economic disparities will be his major concern if he ends up the Republican nominee in 2016. Even on international issues, however, President Obama talked about the need for investing in “smart development,” but what that means and what he proposes in that regard was not stated. Speaking to a congressional audience dominated by Republicans who have been notoriously unfriendly to U.S. humanitarian aid, some statement toward that end, especially since the Millennium Development Goals to reduce extreme poverty have a 2015 deadline, would have been important for his listeners in the Capitol and the public nationwide. Internationally and domestically, the reality is that the poor have been losing out to the super-wealthy, and the middle-class populism that President Obama proposed for the U.S. doesn’t necessarily add up to war on poverty here or overseas.
- Political reform: “A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” the president said, “and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.” That was it. If one needed evidence that there is a dearth of political will for political reform, the SOTU provided it. If either party, much less the president, thinks, as he said, that the nation—and Congress—can find “a better politics…where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears…[and] one where we debate without demonizing each other,” the nation’s retreat from cleaning up political campaigns and ridding the system of secret dark money means that that “better politics” will be next to impossible to find. It’s the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, the policy that President Obama said he was against but actually took advantage of for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, where the president cleaned up in donations from Wall Street. The president reminded his audience that he isn’t running for election any more, having been elected twice already; there is no one better than Barack Obama at this stage in his presidency to take on the challenge of cleaning up elections, but he doesn’t appear geared to do it.
- The Ferguson legacy: The president made a number of references to issues that have gestated from the nation’s worsening dynamics of race relations. He talked about the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights and the need to “make voting easier for every single American,” but it would have been interesting for the president to offer one or two lines of specifics—expanding online voter registration, expanding early voting opportunities, making it possible to register at public agencies, as examples—that would have made the point more concrete for his audience. But the president was more oblique about the specific racial dimension of police violence and racial disparities. “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York,” President Obama said. “But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.” Here again, because the issues are so complex, giving Americans a handle on what he might mean and call for—including some of Attorney General Holder’s recommendations—would have been helpful for sharpening the public debate to reach concrete public policies. He described Americans as “a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen – man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability,” but while the president called for rectifying the wage gap between men and women for equivalent jobs, he didn’t specifically address the disparities by race in education, health, housing, and incomes, nor did he reference his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative (except in suggesting that lauding the generosity of Americans who “live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper”). In the lead-up to the speech, more was expected on race relations than he actually spoke.
- Forgotten constituencies: The president did mention in passing persons with disabilities, an important recognition given the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But in his job creation proposals, he didn’t offer specifics to note the employment challenges of this population, whose participation in the labor force has not improved in any way as much as advocates, much less the sponsors of the ADA, might have hoped. 2015 is not just the ADA’s anniversary, but the VRA’s, too, and the large constituency of persons with disabilities is one many of us will join at one time or another. Unfortunately, once again, the president skipped over rural America—nary a mention of “rural” and the only mention of farms being his reference to the “rich farmlands” of his home state of Illinois. While the president rightly extolled his actions on Cuba, “changing a policy long past its expiration date,” as he put it, he didn’t take a comparable step in another area of policy stuck in the past, giving some hope to the Palestinians that the U.S. would recognize their national aspirations as much as the president recommitted the nation to the security of Israel. While the president referenced the “grieving families in Tucson and Newtown,” the issue that he gave to Vice President Biden after Newtown, gun control, is clearly off everyone’s agenda, and it is to our nation’s shame.
- Tax reform: It’s on the president’s agenda again per this speech. He wants to close tax loopholes for the rich, hike the tax rates for the rich—especially for their investment income—in order to give tax breaks to working families, and to punish corporations that keep their profits overseas. In the lead-up to the SOTU, he even suggested a new fee on large financial institutions, though he still inexplicably shied away from a “Robin Hood tax” on the financial transactions of high volume Wall Street traders. But President Obama also promised to reward corporations that create jobs here. Watch out, there. The big corporations that give generously to candidates from both parties will be promising job creation if they get more tax breaks, but which corporations will be lobbying for what? Plenty of big name corporations have been working both sides of the aisle recently, looking for tax breaks or looking for relief from government scrutiny, including JPMorgan Chase (with CEO Jamie Dimon looking to weaken Dodd-Frank), Apple (with Tim Cook showing up in Washington to protect the company’s use of offshore tax havens), and a bevy of corporations pushing the Obama administration, successfully so far, to push though the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact. In the end, tax reform rarely if ever goes against the priorities of the largest corporations. It would be nice if the president were to say that if the nation “rewards” corporations for their promises to keep jobs in the U.S. that there would be “clawback” provisions to make them repay the American taxpayer when they fail to do so. Otherwise, it always seems like an economic windfall for corporations compared to micro-progress for the American middle class.
To be sure, the president had big political victories to announce in the State of the Union—the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan, fewer than 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq compared to 180,000 six years ago (even though he suggested that the U.S. and its allies had been making progress in “stopping ISIL’s advance,” which doesn’t quite seem to be the case in either Iraq or Syria), the success of over ten million Americans with health insurance coverage due to the Affordable Care Act, the shift in America’s Cuba policy, the legal right to gay marriage spreading throughout the states (and, notably, the president said the word, “transgender”), and the significant progress under the Obama administration on climate change. It is easy to focus on shortcomings when the needs are so great, but the president deserves credit for making many changes, even if during his first two years in office when he had a friendlier Congress to deal with, he pursued a “small ball” policy agenda when he could have done bigger things, such as a stronger ACA with a public option or a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Despite the economic populism of the policy proposals, the content of President Obama’s State of the Union speech was hardly a new version of the New Deal for Americans. Given the Republican-dominated chambers of Congress, on his own, the president is going to face tough sledding in his efforts to make most of his proposals a reality.
But the president, any president, isn’t the only author of social change in our nation. As shown through the president’s comments on race relations after Ferguson, normalization of diplomatic relations with and ending the embargo against Cuba, and protecting the civil rights of the LGBT population, change comes from the mobilization of the American public in social movements, pressuring the executive and legislative branches to do what is really important for the American public. That’s especially true, more than ever, with a divided Congress whose members are more prone to posture and fight rather than understand and act.
The onus is therefore on the nonprofit sector to pick up on the social movement building that these times—and the president’s SOTU proposals—require and to mobilize their constituencies around the messages of helping working people, raising tax rates on the superwealthy, creating more job opportunities, and making community colleges free. And in addition, as a result of the speech, nonprofits and the communities they represent have a new agenda for creating a narrative on the issues that the SOTU underplayed or missed entirely: dealing directly with poverty, expanding humanitarian aid, and cleaning up election finance. It’s time for a new nonprofit sector State of the Union strategy.