Since, lately I have been reviewing the organizational design of online events from the Super Bowl to fashion shows, I thought I would analyze last week’s big online event, the President’s annual State of the Union address!
It was hard for us to work up the motivation to want to watch the State of the Union address. (And apparently other people as well.) These speeches, no matter who makes them, usually aren’t all that interesting and don’t really tell you that much in terms of information you can use. Often, they are just rah-rah moments for whichever political party is in power to cheer on their pet projects. But, since there are big issues facing the country at the moment and we all should do our best to become more involved with government, we dutifully logged on at 9 p.m. to watch the President’s speech.
In general, I have been very impressed with the IT organization of President Obama’s staff. They generally do a great job incorporating the latest online and social media tools to convey his campaign messages. This year, they promised an “enhanced” version of his State of the Union address to those who watched it online.
Interestingly, as with the fashion shows, the State of the Union does not start exactly on time. There was a delay of about 19 minutes or so between when the broadcast began and when the President started speaking. We people-watched during this time, wishing the enhanced online version would answer questions like, “Why are members of Congress wearing green ribbons?” (to pay tribute to victims of gun violence, apparently)
It was an interesting contrast people-watching this crowd versus the fashion show crowd. I didn’t spot one person looking at a smart phone at any time during the SOTU broadcast. My husband commented that this could be an age thing more than an issue of manners. In general, politicians are excellent networkers and have incredible people skills. It was refreshing to see them all chatting and smiling with each other.
Once the President enters the room, it takes him at least 5 minutes to get up to the podium to speak.
This entrance was a little confusing to me. For some reason, the news makes me believe that Congress and the White House are bumping into each other all the time working on various legislative matters. So, even though it is the State of the Union, it should not be that big of a deal for them to shake hands or say hello to the President because they would see him the next day at work. Apparently, this is where I am completely wrong. The way members of Congress were greeting the President (and each other) it appeared like they almost never see each other in person, except for at big events like the State of the Union.
The President began his address.
The issue we are most concerned with at the moment is the sequester, i.e. the automatic spending cuts to the military and many government agencies that is supposed to take effect March 1st or about 8 days from now. Military is big business here in Virginia. Virginia is home to the Pentagon as well as Quantico Marine Base and large shipbuilding and aviation activities in the Newport News area. Many people make their living here directly or indirectly through military spending. So, any cut to military spending is a threat to a lot of jobs and will deal a body blow to the Virginia economy.
As I have written about before, Virginia is a battleground state that has very near equal numbers of Democratic and Republican voters. Every year, the elections are tight and to be a representative from Virginia you can’t be too much of an extremist. Virginia is also in the spotlight right now for having some pretty impressive representation in the House and Senate. Eric Cantor is the House Majority Leader and is the Representative for our Congressional District. In the Senate, Virginia recently elected Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both former governors of the state. Mark Warner was part of the “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group of Senators coming up with alternative, bipartisan budget solutions. So, Virginia in many respects has sent its A-team to handle these extremely difficult fiscal problems. I often wish they would just lock all the Virginia Congressional members in a room and ask them to hammer out a deal for the nation.
Senator Mark Warner recently sent an email to his constituents that said “The sequester was intentionally designed to be an unacceptable financial tool–an option that no reasonable policymaker would ever willingly choose to use. But by continually pushing off the day of reckoning, we essentially have further amplified its potentially destructive impact: Even deeper cuts may be required over an even shorter budget period.” Last week, Senator Kaine visited areas of Virginia that are likely to be targeted by the cuts.
The President started off his speech indicating that America’s economy is strong and growing. I can certainly understand why he did this. After all, there is no use scaring everyone that danger is looming in less than two weeks. He mentioned the sequester and said that he wanted some reasonable compromises but there wasn’t a lot of specifics. We got a hint about what counter-proposals are being circulated in Congress.
“Now, some in Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits. That idea is even worse.”
–President Obama, State of the Union address, February 13, 2013.
Now that I have re-read the text of the speech online, I see that most of the first half or so of the speech was about the sequester but when I was watching it live for some reason, the focus on the sequester didn’t seem to come through.
The President said he wanted to “ask more of the wealthiest seniors,” which could mean either cutting them off from Social Security or Medicare or giving them fewer benefits from these programs. Personally, I don’t think this is a bad idea. Of all the budget sacrifices that have to be made, this seems like a pretty small one. From reading I have done on this issue, however, some people really resist this idea out of principle. They construe Social Security and Medicare benefits as something they have paid for in full and are now owed rather than what it truly is, a form of insurance that guarantees you a minimum standard of living if you haven’t managed to do better on your own.
He also mentioned closing tax loopholes. While the speech didn’t mention too much in terms of specifics, the “enhanced” version of the speech gave some guidance here, suggesting that corporate aircraft exemptions would be on the list.
The “enhanced” version was a little disappointing. There were notices that you could live Tweet your reactions to the speech by using #sotu but unlike the Superbowl broadcast, they didn’t incorporate those tweets (or a curated selection of them) into the enhanced version. So, I suppose you should either be watching the online version with your smart phone in hand or have two windows on your computer open so that you can both watch the speech and Tweet. I personally wanted to see the discussion centralized in one place. The SOTU could also take a page from the SuperBowl broadcast and choose in advance several Twitter commentators (perhaps distinguished members of their party, journalists or celebrities like Stephen Colbert and John Stewart) to put in comments during the clapping breaks to liven things up a bit.
The graphics used to enhance the speech were sometimes helpful but sometimes seemed too simplistic. For example, in a portion of the speech discussing the military, rather than providing some sort of data, it was just pictures of troops hugging their families at welcome home events.
My main complaint about the State of the Union speech is that it was just too vague. There were a lot of great ideas mentioned but almost nothing about how you could follow up on various initiatives. For example, when the President mentioned raising minimum wage or expanding access to preschool, it would have been great to have a link saying, “Click here to read the draft legislation on this subject from Representative ____.” After the speech, we were left wondering whether these were just ideas or actual pending legislative actions.
Getting to the meat of the speech, however, what were the ideas the President proposed?
1. Avoid the sequester by restoring defense spending but cutting tax loopholes and decreasing benefits to wealthy seniors.
2. Set up 15 3-D printing hubs to help reinvigorate areas impacted by job losses.
3. Invest in energy research to shift cars off of oil and gas and reduce emissions.
4. Fix-It-First program to repair 70,000 structurally unsound bridges
5. Improve access to mortgage refinancing for Americans with sound credit.
6. Expand preschool education offerings.
7. Immigration reform
8. Paycheck Fairness Act to help ensure women are not discriminated against in wages and salaries
9. Increase minimum wage to $9.00 per hour, tie minimum wage to the cost of living
10. Cyber-security legislation to better secure U.S. computer systems
11. TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU
12. Improve the voting experience in America
13. Gun control
On this last issue, gun control, it does seem that the moment for this legislation has lost its window. One suggestion I would make is to move the talking point about mental health to the top of the legislation and get that done.
After last week’s terrifying rogue cop incident, perhaps having some form of screening and monitoring system for those who have received specialized job-related training in killing tactics would be a good idea too. Also, last night’s Frontline documentary on Adam Lanza demonstrated that probably the best source of research and information on how to prevent gun violence in children may be tied up in the families of the killers. Understandably, these families are probably afraid to speak for fear of being sued or targeted. I would like to see Congress authorize a special commission of health care professionals that would allow these families to be interviewed fully, without fear of prosecution. The results of this commission would not be made public but any findings to prevent gun violence could then be shared with institutions and health care professionals who could use that information.
The day after the speech, the White House hosted another online event for mostly younger people to comment on the ideas in the State of the Union and ask the President questions. This event was very well done. The President performs very well in unscripted Q&A formats. I was impressed that the questions they chose from young people demonstrated a great deal of sophistication and wanted specifics. People were asking questions like, “If you raise the minimum wage, won’t that raise the prices for everything from groceries to gasoline?” Also, “What are your plans to limit software patent protection from patent trolls?” The President had thoughtful responses to each of these questions.
If there is one thing I think would move this country forward in helping to solve the very difficult problems before us, it would be to deemphasize the role of political parties and focus instead on our individual representatives and senators. When you just listen to President Obama’s words and you don’t put them in the context that he is part of the larger Democratic party goals, the words are thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate. Right now, as I receive updates from the largely Republican members of our Virginia House of Delegates, I find the same thing. These are good-hearted people who want to do the very best for this country. We have somehow forgotten to think of them as people and construe them as cogs in a big machine. Our overemphasis on political party affiliation is not helping us move forward. We need to let our Congressional representatives know that we are paying attention to them as individuals and that we want them to vote their conscience, not their party. They need to be free to make whatever compromises they have to. News media have a large role in making this happen. We need to be careful about painting all members of one political party with a broad brush and instead focus on the votes and actions of individual party members or subgroups within each party.
“[W]e were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
–Barack Obama, State of the Union, February 13, 2013
What was your reaction to the State of the Union address? What political issues are you thinking about lately? Please share in the comments.