President Obama in his final State of the Union address said Americans are living in a time of “extraordinary change,” one that presents tremendous opportunities but also poses grave threats.
“It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families,” the president said in prepared remarks.
Obama defended his economic policies, clearly in response to criticism from Republicans that the recovery has been too slow and that large threats remain.
“The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” he said. Anyone who claims otherwise, he said, is “peddling fiction.”
“We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s; an unemployment rate cut in half. Our auto industry just had its best year ever. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters,” the president said.
Obama delivered his final State of the Union as the race to replace him heats up. Acknowledging that his time in office is limited, the president said this speech will look forward not to the final year he has in office but to the next five or ten years.
“So let’s talk about the future, and four big questions that we as a country have to answer – regardless of who the next President is, or who controls the next Congress. First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?”
As Obama heads into his final year in office, the U.S. is seven years into a recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. During his administration the U.S. economy has rebounded from a threat that put 8.8 million Americans out of work, nearly toppled Wall Street and the U.S. auto industry, and saw stock markets lose half their value.
All those jobs have been replaced and then some, but critics argue the quality of jobs created since the crisis was averted has left millions of Americans under-employed and wage growth has struggled to gain momentum.
Wall Street is perhaps stronger than ever, too strong perhaps by some measures. The banking industry is still concentrated among a handful of giant financial institutions – the too big to fail banks -- and stock market gains have benefited mostly the wealthiest Americans, leaving middle and lower income workers struggling to pay mortgages and cover their monthly bills.
Obama said Tuesday that economic policies going forward have to favor working Americans over Wall Street bankers and other wealthy, powerful interests that can use their leverage to influence policy. After all, it wasn’t food stamp recipients who caused the financial crisis, he said, “recklessness on Wall Street did.”
“After years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else; or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered,” the president said.
“In this new economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less. The rules should work for them. And this year I plan to lift up the many businesses who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers ends up being good for their shareholders, their customers, and their communities, so that we can spread those best practices across America.”
And U.S. markets, while still hovering near all-time highs, are more vulnerable than ever to global hiccups, like the current slowdown in China and other emerging markets.
Meanwhile, the recent plunge in worldwide oil prices has put more money in consumers’ pockets but left the large and important domestic energy sector teetering on the brink of a rash of bankruptcies, a situation that could put thousands of Americans out of work.
All of this, however, is perhaps secondary on the minds of many Americans, pushed aside by the threat to national security posed by extremist terrorists, both within the U.S. and abroad. The president defended his administration’s record in this arena, as well.
“I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air,” he said. “Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close.”
In his State of Union remarks, Obama said many of the problems facing Americans can only be fixed if America mends its broken political system.
“The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates,” the president said.
“It will only happen if we fix our politics.”