Wellesley Faculty on the 2013 State of the Union

February 13, 2013

Expert Perspectives on Issues Discussed in the President's February 12 Speech

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In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of conversation about the 2013 State of the Union Address and the plans and programs discussed by President Barack Obama. We asked members of the faculty to offer their own reactions to the speech on some of the key themes. Here are their reflections:

On Voter Motivation: Hahrie Han
Associate Professor of Political Science

Obama was more aggressive about pushing core elements of a progressive policy agenda like economic reform, immigration, climate change, and education. He was more confrontational against the Republican agenda and characteristically optimistic. Two of the big questions are: Can he deliver on this agenda and will he be more successful in pushing a stronger progressive agenda in the second term?

If we look at the facts, the politics are the same: a Republican House with a stubborn conservative majority. Part of the answer as to what Obama can do will depend on his ability to mobilize the diverse coalition of people that elected him to office in 2012. Organizing For America 2012 changed the demographic basis of the Democratic Party by mobilizing younger, more diverse groups of people. Mobilizing them to support his agenda will require more than speeches.

On Health Care: Tom Burke
Professor of Political Science

The theme of the speech seemed to be that we are coming out of the recession and so we can now attack some of the longstanding social problems that we face. The President touched on many of the priorities of liberals—early childhood education, climate change, gun control, immigration reform, rebuilding our infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, and straightening out the housing mess by refinancing mortgages. 

On health care there wasn't much that's new, which is not surprising—much of Obama's second term will be about implementing the landmark legislation that was enacted in his first term, The Affordable Care Act.

Obama claimed that the Affordable Care Act is already slowing the growth of health care costs. I'm not sure about that. It is true that health care cost growth has slowed dramatically in the last few years, but we've had previous periods of slow growth before—they've always been followed by a return to the inflation that has made American health care by far the most expensive in the world. Undoubtedly a big reason for the slowing in costs is the recession, but there also may be more pressure on the health care sector to control costs, part of which is tied to the ACA. In any case, health care costs are a huge and complex problem that I believe we'll be fighting over for many years to come.

The one surprise on health care was that Obama said he would enact reforms that would save as much in Medicare as the Simpson-Bowles Commission had pledged, about $480 billion dollars. That's significantly more than he had previously committed to. We need to see what exactly he proposes to do to understand how big a change this is.

On the Second Amendment: Tom Cushman
Deffenbaugh de Hoyos Carlson Professor in the Social Sciences; Professor of Sociology

President Obama has a habit of finding rights in the Constitution that are not there and ignoring some of the most important ones that are. Health care, for instance, is not a right specified in the Constitution. It could be achieved at the state level in keeping with the Ninth Amendment through political and economic incentives rendered by the federal government. On the other hand, the Second Amendment enshrines the right of self-defense—one of the most fundamental human rights—in granting all American citizens the right to bear arms. Unfortunately for those who wish to abrogate that right and use tragedies for that purpose, the Constitution is silent on specifying the conditions of ownership or the types of arms that citizens may own.

Reconsidering the Second Amendment in light of the modern technological enhancement of the lethality of weapons is better done by amending the Constitution, rather than by a combined effort by the executive and legislative branches of government to infringe the constitutional rights of citizens, which are peremptory and non-negotiable. If the President or legislators who seek to limit gun ownership and ban certain kinds of arms wanted to, they could call for a Constitutional Convention to amend the Constitution. But they know there would never be popular support for this because, in general, most Americans still believe that the right of gun ownership should not be infringed. 

On Climate Change: Jay Turner
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

The President framed climate change as an urgent domestic issue—with significant consequences for the nation's security, stability, and economy, rather than as a global effort in which the United States needs to do its part. Of course, climate change is a global issue, but the President's rhetorical strategy suggests climate change is regaining relevance as a domestic issue.

We are at a pivotal moment in U.S. energy policy. With the surge of natural gas production, governmental policies to support research and deployment of alternative energy and energy efficiency remain critical to addressing climate change. The President laid out a familiar pattern for advancing environmental reform last night—in fact, it was a formula that was central to the Clinton administration's second term. When faced with gridlock in Congress, environmental reform didn't stop; instead, as political scientists have noted, it energized alternative policy pathways. 

Few expect Congress to advance climate change legislation, which means that big changes, such as a market-based carbon emissions policies, or smaller changes, such as creating an "energy security trust"—both of which I'd like to see—are unlikely to move. Instead, most of the action is going to be in the executive branch. I expect we'll see some major initiatives emerging from the executive branch, such as new emissions standards for existing power plants, higher energy-efficiency standards for buildings, and the termination of the Tar Sands pipeline. 

How this is going to play out is going to depend mightily on the people the President chooses to replace the outgoing secretary of energy and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency. If his nominee for secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, the environmentally minded CEO of outdoor-recreation retailer REI, is any indication, the upcoming year could be very interesting for energy policy and climate change.

On Universal Preschool: Barbara Beatty
Professor of Education

I’ve been an advocate of Universal Preschool Education (UPK) for more than forty years, so my first reaction to President’s speech was: music to my ears! Let’s hope that this time we’re going to hang in there and make high quality preschool education truly universal. 

It is important to note that only high quality preschool education produces long-term payoffs. President Obama’s welcome announcement raises some big, complicated questions -- chief among them are: how can we get high quality preschool education; what do we mean by high quality UPK and who should decide; who will provide it; how can we balance all young children’s needs for play with young “disadvantaged” children’s needs for time to focus on “emergent literacy”; and who should pay for this? It will be a long haul and these are the things that must be kept in mind.

It was wonderful to hear the President sound the call.  Little children and their families, and our country, have been waiting, for a long time.  Let’s do it, and keep at it, beyond President Obama’s audacious goals for his second term.

We’ll be adding additional reflections as the day goes on, please check back for more thoughts from the faculty.


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