In State of the Union, Obama puts government at the center of Americans’ lives

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech aggressively placed government at the center of Americans’ lives, starting with a litany of government economic plans, and ending by celebrating Americans as the subjects of government.

“As Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens,” he said emphatically at the end of his speech.

“It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status,” he said with great vehemence. “It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”

Merriam-Webster defines a citizen as “a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalized.”

The hour-long speech offered a series of government measures to counter numerous economic problems, including the damage caused by the government-created housing bubble that burst in 2007, and shortcomings in government-managed education programs felt most keenly by low-income Americans.

The speech called for a $9 minimum wages, just after he called for a legal status for roughly 11 million low-skill illegal immigrants and to their relatives.

He called for Congress to help homeowners refinance their mortgages to reduce their monthly interest payments. The proposal is an effort to reduce the massive mortgage debt accepted by Americans during the 1990s and 2000s, when government policy encouraged poor and middle-class people to take out risky loans.

He called for a government program to demolish the many houses left over from the government-fueled housing bubble. “Let’s put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods,” he said.

He gave government credit for auto companies’ sale of more energy-efficient autos.

The government’s “initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and housing will help entrepreneurs and small business owners expand and create new jobs,” he claimed, before declaring that government was an essential element to economic growth.

“But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs,” he said, just before calling for Congress to create a hugely expensive program to fund preschool for the nation’s children.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” he claimed, with offering to help families stand on their own feet.

He called for a revival of railroads, despite Americans’ preference for car and air travel. “Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet,” he claimed.

He called on Congress to help him change how states manage their Election Day voting procedures. “I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America … [and] I’m asking two long-time experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Gov. Romney’s campaign, to lead it.”

He downplayed several hot-button social issues that he touted in his Jan. 21 inauguration speech.

But he continued his efforts to raise the social status of gay and lesbians by highlighting gays and lesbians in the military, which is highly regarded by the public. “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight,” he said.

He used an economic argument to boost his controversial call for the conditional amnesty of 11 million mostly low-skill illegal immigrants.

The speech did not include any proposals to deregulate the economy, to scale back the federal government ambitions or to increase Americans’ independence from government.

Obama sought to portray his big-government priorities as a moderate and reasonable measure. “Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” he claimed. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” he insisted.

He offered token rhetorical support for free-enterprise, but subordinated it to government regulation of the nation’s economy and social arrangements. “It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation,” he said.

The closest Obama came to urging greater freedom for entrepreneurs came as he called for a massive government program to regulate the globe’s climate.

“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one [Sens.] John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago,” he said.

However, even that concession to the free market was conditional on government getting what it wants. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Obama threatened.

“I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

He ended his litany by defining Americans as citizens, not as free individuals, nor parents, not entrepreneurs.

“We are citizens … [the term] describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation,” he said.

The government-centered view of Americans’ live was reflected throughout his speech.

For example, he cited families, but in the context of government guidance. “We’ll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood — because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one,” he said.

Also, he touted a greater role for the federal government in states’ voting practices, partly because it would protect what he claimed is “our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote.”

“It remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story,” he concluded.

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