Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
Last Tuesday, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union Speech. The major theme of the speech, "Opportunity for All", has been somewhat lost amid the subsequent media coverage of sideshow issues.
For example, there was a seemingly coordinated effort by Republicans to paint the President's infrequent, and fully constitutional, use of executive orders as some kind of lethal blow to American freedom. Paul Ryan accused Mr. Obama of conducting an "increasingly lawless presidency." And Jim Sensenbrenner said that Mr. Obama "exhibited an utter contempt for Congress and our constitutional democracy ".
This sort of poisonous rhetoric was not unexpected from Ryan, who met with a cabal to plot against Obama on his first day as President, and Sensenbrenner, who believes his primary job to be "fighting the President".
All of this false rage comes despite the fact that executive orders during the Obama administration have fallen to modern per year lows. So far, Mr. Obama has issued executive orders only 168 times. I don't recall Mr. Sensenbrenner similarly blasting Ronald Reagan for his 381 executive orders. And Paul Ryan was conspicuously quiet when George W. Bush used the executive order 291 times.
If anything, Mr. Obama has been especially circumspect in issuing executive orders. This, despite the fact that the current Congress has been the most do-nothing group in modern times. With these folks, just keeping the Government open is seen as a major accomplishment.
No, the media circus has distracted from a serious and real problem facing our country-the increasing lack of economic opportunity. According to common belief, Americans have a world of opportunity and that if we just work hard and take responsibility, we can get ahead. However, in one recent study, the US ranks near the bottom in economic mobility when compared to nine other developed countries. Another study found that an American born into the bottom income fifth in income is 42% likely to remain in poverty.
It is this issue, the need to rebuild an American economy that once again provides "Opportunity for All", that was the focus of much of the President's speech. He referred several times to building "ladders to the middle class". The address outlined four major areas in his proposed "Year of Action".
In the first area, he discussed what the federal government could do to speed up economic growth and create more good, middle-class jobs. For example, we could fix the tax code to reward companies that create jobs here and no longer reward those who ship them overseas. We can restore the deep cuts made to federal R&D. We can add to the number of regional high-tech manufacturing hubs.
We can begin the effort to fix America's crumbling infrastructure. And we can embrace immigration reform, accelerating economic growth and shrinking the deficit by a trillion dollars over 20 years.
In the second area, the President talked about getting better training for people who will fill the available jobs. As amplified by his speech at the GE plant in Waukesha, the President set-up a commission to improve job training programs. Mr. Obama also suggested that we find ways to improve the unemployment insurance system, helping to get people back to work sooner. And he is using his bully pulpit to encourage companies to hire the long-term unemployed.
The third area focused on improving the education of our children. Important policy improvements in this area include higher public school curriculum standards, widespread early childhood education, and needed legislation to handle the student debt crisis.
The final area in which our government can act is to make hard work pay-off. A big part of this effort is to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. And the ACA is now working to improve the financial security of all Americans by making health insurance available and affordable. No longer will Americans have to do without needed care due to a pre-existing condition or poverty.
Much of the President's vision for our country requires some legislative action. However, aware of Congress's almost criminal recent inaction, he frequently pointed-out areas that the nation can move ahead without (and despite) Congress. Absent Congressional action on pre-K education, he pointed out that several states were going ahead and implementing it. Absent action on the minimum wage, he noted that increases were proceeding in many states. Absent Congressional action on improved access to broadband, he told how tech companies were getting together to address the issue.
And, causing the over-the-top bluster from the likes of Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Ryan, the President announced that, wherever possible, he would use his perfectly legal executive powers to move the country ahead.
But what are we getting from Congress? Certainly not the needed leadership on the urgent problems facing our nation. We only get a whopping dose of partisan whining, blockage, and gridlock. If the last few years are any indication, Congress will make 2014 yet another "Year of Inaction". Not only are legislators like Ryan and Sensenbrenner doing nothing, but they demonize those who are actually trying to fix our country's ills. Our problems are too serious and immediate to continue playing these silly political games.