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SOTU promises 'year of action'; but did speech say enough?

Black leaders praise new focus on disparities; for some speech still too ‘tepid’

1/29/2014, 11:33 a.m.
President Obama delivers the 2014 SOTU address

By Hazel Trice Edney

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Finally. That was the general sentiment expressed by Black economic activists in response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOU) speech this week – a speech that surpassed previous SOUs in dealing with economic woes that disparately affect African-Americans and other people of color.

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” the President told the joint session of Congress during his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday. “Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – 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.”

The speech set a tone that the President is willing to bypass Congress to use executive orders where possible to advance his economic agenda in the coming months.

“Let’s see where else we can make progress together. Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead. Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows.”

It was a common criticism from Black leaders that President Obama did not say or do enough during his first term pertaining to racial economic disparities. In fact, he often made the statement that a “rising tide lifts all boats”, implying that the poor – which are disparately people of color – would be lifted along with everyone else. Some say his new tone and strategies appear to recant that sentiment, but still doesn’t go far enough.

“It was good that he finally recognized and brought to the attention of everyone that government has to pay attention to lifting all boats and not kind of assume that just because the economy is growing that all boats are rising,” said economist Bill Spriggs, in an interview following the speech. “He said that frequently during the first term and I think that this was a clear statement that, no, the rising tide did not lift all boats. I think that is a positive step forward in terms of brain work.”

Ironically, Spriggs who was a part of President Obama’s economics team as an assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department in his first term, is now one of his most meticulous critics. Now chief economist for the AFL-CIO, Spriggs says the SOU was fairly strong, but the President didn’t go far enough in giving specific examples to describe the suffering and depth of disparities.