President Barack Obama delivered the third State of the Union of his presidency before a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives, and for much of the hour-long address he spoke of his determination to help restore the fortunes of America's beleaguered middle class.
Obama warned Congress and the nation that middle class hopes and aspirations were at risk and in danger of being lost to a generation of Americans. He cited the example of his grandparents who were contributors to, and the beneficiaries of, the American Dream.
"They understood that they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to the story of success every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college and put away a little for retirement."
But now, Obama said, the middle class is at risk of being washed away by a river of economic and tax inequities, housing foreclosures, stubborn unemployment and a host of other economic, social and political challenges. And he offered a prescription that he said would level the playing field and restore hope to middle class Americans.
"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive," he told lawmakers Tuesday night in a speech that was elegant, moving, forceful and sometimes combative. "No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."
Obama used his bully pulpit to unveil what he described as a blueprint for "an America built to last." His speech focused on returning Americans to work through reengineering and job retraining, innovation and American ingenuity, education, and creating greater numbers of high-quality jobs. He bubbled with optimism throughout his address and asserted at one point ... America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about ..."
For several hours Tuesday night, more than 100 people congregated in and around the 11th floor offices of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest. The group at the watch party and roundtable discussions included working professionals, entrepreneurs, students, representatives from a number of non-profits, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a delegation of elected officials from Maryland.
Before the president's speech, small groups of individuals in the lobby, boardroom and other parts of the 11th floor mingled, conversed, nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, sipped wine and other beverages and discussed politics. During Obama's speech, some made comments, others signaled agreement with the president verbally, most cheered and applauded parts of the speech that appealed to them, and reacted to Republicans who wore grim, stoic expressions much of the night.
Diane Bell-McKoy praised the speech.
"It was a great speech, strong, inclusive, about jobs and the economy," said Bell-McKoy, president and CEO of Associated Black Charities (ABC), one of Maryland's leading black philanthropic organizations. "I would have liked to see him focus more on public-private initiatives ... I loved the direction of the speech but the devil is in the details."
Veteran journalist Richard Prince wondered if the president would be able to make good on his promises given the political climate and the sharp, rancorous rhetoric that passes for political discourse in Washington.
"The president has always been known to give good speeches but the question is, what effect will the speech have? That remains to be seen," said Prince, who writes a weekly column on diversity in journalism for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. "He needs to do all he can by executive action – go around Congress or over the heads of Congress and go directly to the American people."
"But the question is, will it work?"
Prince said Obama set "the right tone of optimism" and struck a chord by asserting that America was No. 1.
"He set a stark contrast of that of the country versus the Republicans – the battle lines are drawn," he said.
Prior to the speech, guests and media representatives in the boardroom heard remarks from Michael Strautmanis, a senior advisor to the president. He touched on what guests would hear from Obama and he also discussed what he thought would be the crucial role of various segments of the black community going into the November elections.
"We sat and talked about the State of the Union and the point the president made is that a lot of the conversation is going to be pessimistic and negative about what the Congress will and won't do," said Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President and Counselor for Strategic Engagement to Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. "But to say things won't happen would be wrong. There is a tremendous need in our country. This is not a time to sit on our hands. Things need to be done. Black America is hurting and there needs to be someone to step up and step in."
Strautmanis reiterated Obama's comments about the severe difficulties facing the middle class.
"This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class. That value is at risk," he said. "I think we need to stop pretending that it's not at risk. The fundamental economic security of this country is threatened. Hard work stopped paying off for Americans. They struggled with growing bills and paychecks that weren't."
"Then in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. Banks made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money. It cost us eight million jobs and plunged the world into a crisis from which we're still trying to recover. I think there is a sense of urgency and a feeling that we have to do something now."
Obama seemed to delight in digging at his Republican counterparts and challenged them to send him a bill passing the payroll tax cut immediately; prohibit the deportation of skilled illegal immigrants who "want to staff our labs and start new businesses"; create new jobs in the energy sector; extend tuition tax credits to middle-class families; establishing a ban on insider trading; and asking the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.
Joint Center President and CEO Ralph B. Everett said he was struck by the number of people who showed up and the level of their enthusiasm.
"I am very pleased by the event," said Everett, who has headed the organization for the past five years. "More than 100 people attended. We had a diverse group – business, non-profits and government and they were all engaged and interested. There was a lot of energy. We could have stayed here for another two hours."
"The president made strong remarks and covered a lot of areas. He made clear the role of government, explained that we've got to work together and said also that everyone has to share the load equally. He seeks to bring the middle class back."