Editorial: The dire state of the Union


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In his 1975 State of the Union address, President Gerald Ford declared that the “state of this Union is not good.” Since this rather frank declaration of American decline, State of the Unions have become highly publicized occasions for the president to hurl as much optimism at the American public as possible, despite the realities on the ground.

There is nothing to suggest that President Obama’s fifth State of the Union will differ from this script. However, if the president wished to be honest with the American people, he would state the obvious; that the state of our Union isn’t great.

Sure, the economy and the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook have improved somewhat of late. But consider the many massive systemic but virtually unchecked problems facing the country.

Income inequality has soared dramatically, reaching a point not seen since before the Great Depression. The top 1 percent of earners own 42 percent of the nation’s wealth compared with bottom 80 percent’s 5 percent share. Even more egregious is that this type of inequality has actually grown worse under the current president than under his predecessor, George W. Bush, according to economists at UC-Berkley.

The situation becomes even bleaker when attention turns to perhaps the single most important policy issue of our time, climate change. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has pointed out, Obama has ramped up offshore drilling, fracking, and other fossil-fuel efforts that will only deepen the damage done by the American energy policy. 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental United States. At this point, it’s hard to imagine greater fossil fuel use reversing this trend.

In Washington, 2013 was supposed to be the year that the Republican Party’s dismal standing with Latino voters would finally motivate a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform act. Instead, the U.S. Senate presented the American public with a lousy, complex path to citizenship and massively wasteful border-control spending that the increasingly radical and ineffectual House GOP torpedoed. Meanwhile, the president continues to deport a record number of undocumented immigrants and millions of college-age undocumented immigrants continue to be denied access to higher education.

The national-security state has also spiraled out of control, with revelations about the NSA’s massive surveillance of American citizens unveiling a profoundly disturbing breach of the privacy that suggests a creeping authoritarianism on the part of our nation’s security services. At the same time, the United States continues to exert its influence to kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Yemen via drone strikes and sacrifice American lives for an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

On top of these huge concerns, the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. Gun violence is out of control. The War on Drugs’ draconian policies continue to incarcerate millions of citizens with no demonstrable effect on drug use. Reproductive rights are under assault in statehouses across the country. Voting rights are being eroded by GOP-led “voter-ID” efforts. With respect to nearly every major policy issue, the United States is either heading in the wrong direction, in denial, or completely impotent.

We do not believe that Obama has the power to fix these problems with a speech — or at all, for that matter. But it would certainly be refreshing if the president used the platform of the State of the Union to communicate to the American people that everything is not well.

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