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Can Obama deliver action on inequality?

updated 2:33 PM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber on Tuesday, January 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen. President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber on Tuesday, January 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Commentators weighed in on Obama's State of the Union address
  • Julian Zelizer says Obama tried to move conversation toward inequality
  • Kevin Appleby: Bipartisan immigration reform possible this time
  • Maria Cardona: GOP could learn from Obama's approach on women's issues

(CNN) -- CNN asked for views on President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, in which he called for "a year of action"-- with or without Congress's agreement -- on combating inequality, creating pathways into employment, immigration reform and more.

Julian Zelizer: Obama's message to the middle class

President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address offered both a threat and a promise: To use the federal government's power to tackle the economic challenges the middle class has faced in recent decades. His theme was opportunity, namely, using government to ensure that all Americans have a genuine chance to climb the ladder "of opportunity" to make it into the middle class and become self-sufficient.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Relying on the government to ensure that those doors stay open is a traditional theme for Democrats, one they've employed effectively since President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

While the speech did have more proposals than some expected (tax reform, investing in infrastructure and research, job training, education, equal pay, minimum wage and more), the address was generally vague. But offering a laundry list was not the President's main intention. Nor was his primary goal to boost his approval ratings.

What the President really hoped to do with this speech was to direct the national conversation for the coming year. He wants to move Washington further away from its political obsession with austerity -- cutting spending and cutting deficits -- and toward a debate about how the federal government, through the President if necessary, can take concrete steps to alleviate the problems of inequality and provide renewed security to the middle class.

President Obama asked Republicans in Congress to join him in entering this discussion and dealing with this problem through concrete policy, while he also sent a clear warning that he will move ahead without them if they resist. "But America does not stand still," the President said, "and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

LZ Granderson: A missed opportunity on inequality

Considering how much stock Democrats have put into the debate over income inequality recently, President Obama's State of the Union speech didn't spend much time driving the party's point home with specifics or facts.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Instead he over-relied on anecdotes. Yes, he correctly pointed out the three decades of technological growth had slowly eaten away at middle-class jobs. But by focusing the nation's attention more on the band-aid minimum wage increase -- and making only cursory mention of more permanent solutions, such as the specific loopholes he would close and tax code revisions he would make -- Obama missed an opportunity. And that was to convince Americans that his economic policies are not the reason median income has dropped since he took office and that he's still capable of big policy initiatives, the kind that could find a little bipartisan support from tax hawks on the moderate right who also want to re-write the tax code.

That's not to suggest an executive order to raise the minimum wage won't help people; it will. But to change the dynamic that has kept wages stagnant since President Reagan, it's going to take something big. And for all of the big talk about income inequality from Democrats, President Obama's address presented very little in terms of specific ideas, backed by facts, that would change the trajectory.

Instead, by glossing over the country's economic arc -- and not educating people on the decades-long regression of the middle class because of the tax code -- he made it easier for his critics to simply point a finger and say "it's his fault."

LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A senior writer for ESPN and lecturer at Northwestern University, the former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Where was foreign policy?

The biggest surprise of Obama's speech last night was his return to a campaign pledge from his first Presidential run: To close the Guantánamo Bay prison where the U.S. government is holding detainees accused of terrorism without formal charge or trial date, violating one of the most fundamental safeguards of our Constitution.

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Anne-Marie Slaughter

That is the only comfort that human rights supporters and humanitarians got from tonight's State of the Union address. On Syria, the greatest moral challenge of our time and a pressing strategic issue, the President said nothing except to make a quick reference to the removal of Syrian chemical weapons due to U.S. "diplomacy backed by force."

That kind of diplomacy is exactly what is lacking in Syria; the participants in the ongoing conference in Switzerland have no reason to think that if they cannot agree to a peace agreement the United States will respond with anything more than exhortations. Indeed, elsewhere in the speech the President echoed his remarks last May when he insisted that "America must move off a permanent war footing," adopting restrictions on the use if drones. He also anticipated the day when the Afghan war, the longest war in American history, would be over.

Looking at the speech as a whole, the real core of the President's foreign-policy is not political but economic: His point early on that America is now the No. 1 place to invest in the world, beating out China. Notwithstanding Secretary of State John Kerry's strenuous efforts on three different fronts -- Iran, Syria, and Israel/Palestine -- his boss used this speech to toss breadcrumbs to various foreign-policy constituencies. It's the economy stupid, never more than now.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of the New America Foundation. She was director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011.

Kevin Appleby: An immigration reform goal he may be able to reach

A highlight of President Obama's State of the Union address was his call for bipartisan cooperation in passing immigration reform this year: "Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. So let's get immigration reform done this year."

Unlike other years, this year's call to action actually has a ring of political reality, as the House Republicans are preparing to release their own principles for reform.

But getting a fair immigration bill through the House of Representatives in an election year will be tough, requiring more political leadership and less political gamesmanship. It is achievable, provided all sides enter the fray in good faith and with a sincere desire to tackle the problem. As the President said in his speech, "...it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system."

Both sides will have to compromise and, believe it or not, work together to pass positive and humane legislation. There will be real differences on the substantive issues, particularly in how the undocumented population will be allowed to apply for citizenship and what future enforcement policies may be adopted. But they are not irreconcilable.

The human stakes are high. If the President and Congress fail to repair our immigration system, immigrant families and communities -- and the social fabric of the nation -- will continue to break apart.

As Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has aptly stated, our current immigration system is a "stain on the soul of the nation. " As a moral matter, we can no longer wait to fix it.

Kevin Appleby is director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Timothy Stanley: Obama plans to ignore Congress -- and they'll ignore him back

The latest State of the Union address reflected the Washington partisanship we've all come to know and hate. Obama began the speech by asking for unity, but quickly made it clear that he a) didn't expect to get it and b) is prepared to break the deadlock with executive action. Take the minimum wage. Obama made a moral case for it being raised, implied that he expects the Republicans to refuse support, and then indicated that he'd find ways of doing it anyway.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Last year he was prepared to fight the Republicans in Congress. This year he'll ignore them and, presumably, travel the country calling them heartless instead. So the battle will take on a new, slightly less Constitutionally-sound dimension. No less bitter, of course.

Where he has asked for cooperation, it's doubtful he'll get it. Solar panels and amnesty for illegal immigrants are not things that John Boehner can easily deliver votes on. Meanwhile, Republicans will probably avoid engaging rhetorically with Obama's economic populism and continue to talk about Obamacare and the deficit instead, setting themselves up to reap a protest vote in the November midterms.

So what we heard last night was an admirably feisty attempt to regain the political initiative by establishing the Republicans as the party of stasis and the President as a man who just wants to get things done. The problem, though, is that the political realities continue to block movement.

Last year we saw a shutdown, light gun control initiatives defeated and even a war averted by just the terror of taking it to Congress. Why should this change? The Republicans won't gain anything from being nicer to the President and the President is staking everything on the country turning against the Republicans. Sorry, but 2014 looks like it'll be a repeat of 2013.

Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

Nick Ehrmann: Early education important, but don't forget high school

Last night, President Obama made an impassioned and necessary case to lower the barriers for low-income students to succeed in higher education. He said: "The problem is we're still not reaching enough kids, and we're not reaching them in time." He's right. That has to change.

Nick Ehrmann
Nick Ehrmann

The President points out that "one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education." His focus on mustering resources from both the public and private sectors, of creating "a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists" to increase access to quality early education is smart.

Let's not forget that the same is true of students further along in their education. Research has shown that academic preparation in high school is the single strongest predictor of college completion.

Take 18-year-old Estiven Rodriguez, the Dominican-born student whom the President hailed in his speech for extraordinary academic achievements, including a scholarship to Dickinson College for the fall. After arriving to the U.S. speaking limited English, Estiven's path to opportunity accelerated with exposure to rigorous academic preparation later on in his journey through the New York City public schools.

Making the President's vision a reality requires collaboration from both the public and private sectors, from the best minds in education, from parents, teachers, policymakers, and nonprofits alike. This is about Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School -- or WHEELS, an urban public high school -- partnering with nonprofits to create a learning environment that helps students like Estiven thrive.

We have the rest of 2014 to see whether the President's intention to work outside of Congress to expand educational opportunity will prove effective.

Nick Ehrmann is the CEO and founder of Blue Engine, a New York City-based education nonprofit that partners with public high schools to prepare students for college success.

Maria Cardona: GOP should follow Obama's lead on women's issues

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama offered a blueprint for moving the country forward with optimism, economic opportunity and pathways to prosperity for all. But thanks to obstruction in Washington, too little has been done to make these a reality for all Americans, especially women. Here is where Republicans should pay attention.

Maria Cardona
Maria Cardona

The President laid out a very clear prescription for Republicans to start fixing their political problems with women. In addition to ending the talk about libidos and our reproductive systems, the GOP would do well to acknowledging that women deserve equal pay for equal work. The President urged Congress and businesses to realize that we need to do away with employment policies that belong in the 1950s and reject the notion that it is OK that the median earnings of full-time female workers are 77% of the median earnings of full-time male workers.

Republicans can also follow the President's lead on raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contract workers as a way to climb out of their self-dug hole with women. Women hold a majority of low-wage jobs in America. Raising the minimum wage and closing the gender wage gap will help the 1 out of 3 women who live in or on the brink of poverty, could cut poverty in half and add half a trillion dollars to the economy.

Add to that abandoning the GOPs obsession with repealing Obamacare -- an initiative that has given countless mothers the security of knowing that their children with pre-existing conditions will be covered by a health plan -- and you could have the beginning of the end of the Republicans' problems with women. Maybe.

Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

John Stoehr: He can't address inequality without spending

President Obama's fifth State of the Union address was haunted by the specter of austerity. Very few of the measures he asked Congress to act on -- education, tax and immigration reform, closing Guantanamo or passing fair-pay legislation -- would require the federal government to spend.

That's what was missing.

According to Lawrence Summers, President Obama's former top economic adviser, if Congress does not authorize more spending, we may be "doomed to oscillation between inadequate and slow growth and bubbly, unsustainable and problem-creating growth." He added: the depressed state of the economy calls for "direct fiscal policy action."

The closest Obama got to discussing spending was after urging Congress to close tax loopholes that reward corporations for sending jobs overseas while creating disincentives to creating jobs at home. We can take the money saved from tax reform, he said, and spend it "rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes." But if Congress fails to act, he said he would use the powers of the executive to fast-track "key projects" to "get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible."

That's fine, but there's only so much Obama can do without Congress. He can cut red tape all day but that's not going to put more money in more Americans' pockets, boosting their purchasing power. His call to raise the minimum wage will indeed increase demand, and alleviate poor sales, but even a $10.10 minimum wage doesn't keep pace with productivity gains over the past decade. This economy is not able to create enough quality jobs on its own. In the absence of benevolent market forces, the government must spend.

John Stoehr is managing editor of the Washington Spectator.

Aaron Carroll: No victory lap on Obamacare

Given that this is the year when the Affordable Care Act really gets into gear, it's not surprising that the President took the opportunity to highlight some of the important things that are happening right now due to health care reform. He highlighted the case of a woman in Arizona who was previously uninsured, but who was able to get health insurance on January 1 thanks to new regulations and the insurance exchanges. Millions of people stand to gain insurance this year, and the administration is eager to highlight this achievement.

Aaron Carroll
Aaron Carroll

But the President also seemed to acknowledge reality in the sense that people are not signing up for insurance at the rate that he had hoped for. He exhorted people to get family members to sign up for care. He used Kentucky as an example of success, but even that state isn't where many hoped it would be.

He urged Republicans to change their tactics on the law. Instead of "refighting old battles," he asked them to offer new ideas and allow them to be compared to his law in terms of costs and coverage.

This certainly didn't feel like a victory lap. President Obama continues to face opposition and calls for the law to be repealed. That's almost certainly not going to happen, but it has to be frustrating to the President that he still has to appeal to the American people for support on a law that was passed almost four years ago.

Aaron E. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of its Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. He has supported a single-payer health system during the reform debate. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

Bob Greene: The state of the union? Discord and inaction

Three bangs of the gavel, "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States," "High privilege and distinct honor," and the annual grandeur-on-demand unfolded right on schedule Tuesday night.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

The State of the Union address was not short on human moments. President Obama, in the first minute of his speech, evoked teachers, entrepreneurs, auto workers, farmers and rural doctors to argue that America's finest moments are crafted not in Washington, but out in the nation.

He pointed out that "the son of a barkeep" -- John Boehner -- was Speaker of the House, and that the son of a single mother -- Obama himself -- was president.

But when Obama declared that "this chamber" -- the well of the House of Representatives, on this evening filled with members of Congress, members of the Cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- "speaks with one voice," his words, no matter how well intentioned, rang necessarily a little hollow.

The leadership of this nation? Speaking with one voice?

If ever in the country's history it was true -- and it probably never was -- it certainly isn't today. The President was making the case that the upper echelon of American politics and government concurs that "the state of our Union" is strong.

That sentiment is far from unanimous, and before long you will find ample evidence in the wall-to-wall attack ads that, as always, will be an inescapable feature of Congressional campaigns across the country. The State of the Union address long ago ceded its place as the main barometer of how political and governmental America feels about itself; the attack ads paint a truer cumulative portrait.

The president vowed "a year of action," and he will be correct, although perhaps not in the way he intended. The action is up the road, in the bare-knuckles election campaigns that lie ahead. The state of the union -- at least the political union -- is combative and discordant. Which is probably healthy, although sometimes not easy to watch. As messy as America's civic life can be, in the end it is hard to dispute that it is indeed a high privilege and distinct honor to live here, to be a part of it all.

CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story;" "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War;" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

Edward Morrissey: Papering over poor track record on jobs

It's always difficult for a President starting a sixth year in office to frame a State of the Union speech for a forward-looking agenda, even when the basic economic environment is good. When that President has governed through a dysfunctional recovery and watched the workforce dwindle down as a share of the working-age population, it's nearly impossible. President Obama's speech, needless to say, did not accomplish the impossible.

Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey

He started out the speech bragging about adding eight million jobs in four years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that figure is 7.5 million since December 2009, although it's closer to 6.5 million in the Household survey. Even at the higher number, job growth works out to an average of 156,250 net jobs added each month.

Thanks to population growth, the U.S. economy needs to add about 150,000 jobs each month just to stay even in terms of workforce employment. What President Obama fails to mention is that his economic policies have dragged employment and active engagement in the workforce as a percentage of the civilian population down from 64.6% at the beginning of that four-year period to 62.8% now, a level not seen since Jimmy Carter gave his first official State of the Union speech in 1978.

Clearly, then, Obama's policies have not brought prosperity and job creation to the nation. At best, we have had four years of stagnation on job creation, and the falling top-line unemployment number reflects an exodus from the workforce, not any improvement in the job market. Why is that? Obama slipped into the passive voice to explain it: "But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled." Obama seems to think that he's just arrived on the scene, but it has been his economic and regulatory policies for the past five years that produced this stalled economy and stagnation environment.

And what did Obama propose to solve this? The same policies that produced it -- spending on supposedly shovel-ready public works, short-term gimmicky incentives and government programs, most of which have nothing to do with freeing capital to unlock job creation.

No one expected Obama to offer anything innovative or new, so it's hardly a disappointment. But like his last few State of the Union speeches, it was largely a laundry list of priorities far out of touch with Americans who just want to get back to work.

Anthony Leiserowitz: A renewed promise of action on climate change

President Obama's 5th State of the Union address called for reigniting the American dream -- one that feels increasingly out of reach for far too many Americans.

Anthony Leiserowitz
Anthony Leiserowitz

He vowed to take assertive presidential action this year -- with Congress where possible, but without Congress when it refuses to act. This includes perhaps his most important legacy -- making serious and substantial progress to reduce the threat of global warming and prepare the nation for the impacts already beginning to hit home. Future generations will look back on this President and on this time as a critical moment in the history of the world: did we choose to address this real and present danger or did we choose to ignore or deny the problem until it festered beyond repair?

The President listed his accomplishments so far -- stronger pollution standards for cars, rules to limit pollution from power plants, investments in the transition to clean energy. He also described new partnerships with states and local communities to begin preparing to protect the nation from extreme weather and other climate impacts.

These are important first steps. There is much still to be done -- by individuals, communities, states, the nation and the world. And there are still political divisions within America about the reality and seriousness of the threat. (He was in fact blunt: "...the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact," he said.)

But as the President reminded us, progress never comes easy. "Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress."

Anthony Leiserowitz is director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

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