I was among the 33.5 million people who sat riveted to their televisions, parsing every second of the State of the Union address. I was stunned to learn, through a Washington Post article by Lisa De Moraes, that viewership was less substantial for this address than last year's 38 million, and even lower than the 48 million that watched in 2010. Are people less interested in what our president has to say? Or is there something else going on?
In any case, this was an important and significant SOTU address. Unleashed from the pressure of re-election, and able to set forth a progressive and aggressive agenda, President Obama dealt with some of the key issues that face our nation. He was able to utter the word "poverty" without his tongue freezing up. Unfortunately, he is still unable to utter the words "Black" or "African American." Still, President Obama laid out an agenda that will ultimately have a positive effect on the African American community, especially if some of his efforts are targeted.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take from soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."
President Obama was not so direct, nor so cutting. But he offered important clarity to an issue his administration has ignored heretofore. While focusing on the middle class, he also noted that people should not work full time and still earn a wage that puts them beneath the poverty line. His advocacy for a minimum wage of $9 per hour, or about $18,000 a year for a single worker who might support a family, was a significant move forward for the poor. Missing was a conversation about poor people and health benefits, and about the employers who refuse to employ people full time so that they can avoid paying benefits. Obamacare will cover many of these employees, but the fact that profitable companies would rather offer a worker 22 hours than 30 to save money is reprehensible.
The State of the Union address is not an opportunity to drill down on every issue, so I very much understand that President Obama could not offer details to the many proposals he raised in SOTU. Still, it was refreshing to hear the president talk about poverty, about women's work and wages, and about issues of equality. The first legislation that President Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Act, which dealt with equal pay issues, without acknowledging race in any of these conversations or the fact is African American women (and Latinas) are at the bottom of the pay scale. Advocating equal pay and dealing with issues of poverty, and implementing solutions, improves the material conditions of women at the bottom.
President Obama discussed infrastructure improvements in his 2008 campaign. Partisan bickering has made it difficult for him to work with states to refurbish, as he says, 70,000 bridges, as well as roads and highways. The last time our nation paid attention to these structural issues was in the 1950s when President Eisenhower, in a job-creation move, built federal highways across our nation to facilitate easy transportation. Have you driven on an interstate highway lately? Whether you are Democrat or Republican, we should all agree that these highways (some called pot hole central) need improvement? Some politicians are so willing to undermine the Obama administration that they are also willing to see our nation become dysfunctional.
The two emotional high points in this speech included the shout out to the 102-year-old woman who waited all day to vote, and the call to gun reform, mentioning victims by name. I was most moved by the family of Hadiya Pendleton, who sat with First Lady Michelle Obama, who had attended their daughter's funeral. They are not only important as parents of a gun violence victim, but as proxies for the more than 500 people shot in Chicago in the last year or so. It was also moving to see former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, unable to clap, who brought her hands together. The president's comments got a standing O, but as soon as the president's speech was over, thirsty vultures, including Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ran to the media to voice opposition.
The president has offered an ambitious agenda, and one that will improve the lot of all Americans. While I chafe at his failure to mention African Americans, I am excited by proposals to close the wealth gap. His agenda won't be implemented unless we advocate for it. What will you do to move it forward?
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.