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Matthew Sanders: State of the Union? 'It's complicated'

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 10:50 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite, AP) President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

People across the world increasingly "like" or "unlike" things presented them by friends, companies and causes they follow on Facebook. They can also choose one of 11 relationship status options — ranging from married, to single, to widowed, to civil union.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama declared, "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger." He didn't, as Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush before him, affirm that the state of the union is "strong." In essence, the president crept up to the statement and declared what we all would put on our national Facebook page as our union status, "It's Complicated."

CNN reported that 77 percent of those polled had a somewhat- or very-positive view of the speech. But here's the catch: Only 12 percent of the participants were Republican. Instant polls like these aren't meaningful. For a president, the "Like" feature is measured by approval ratings from national polls. It turns out that the State of the Union speeches rarely make a difference in approval, and Obama's +1 bump is statistically insignficant.

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool) (Charles Dharapak, AP) President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool) (Charles Dharapak, AP)

It's unfortunate people tune out the State of the Union, which, regardless of political persuasion, is one of the soaring triumphs of our constitutional republic. Once per year we have duly elected or appointed representatives from all three branches of government in a historic chamber. The procession and ceremony are an impressive part of our national heritage. Whether the rhetoric thrills or galls you, it is an important annual moment as an American.

Why is it complicated? The United States is painfully divided on many issues, and the president further made a surprisingly strident case for his proposed policies and programs. After a divisive and battering election, I would have hoped Obama would turn his vaunted communication skills toward conciliation and unification.

Perhaps some shy away from the speeches because we are so divided at present. The speeches often carry carefully articulated positions and numbers spun to gird up the president's narrative of success and appeal for support. I won't attempt to agree with or refute the facts in the president's address. For that, I'd recommend the Washington Post Fact Checker as a help to cut through the hazy rhetoric.

Instead, I'll offer a run through the speech and indicate a few points where I would click "Like" or "Unlike" and offer some reasons why.

Like

We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Why? He painted a real picture of our responsibility to one another.

Like

We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

Why? He used elevating language fixing us on the ideal of self-governance. He acknowledged the challenge of doing so.

Like

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

Why? Taxes and spending are what we call fiscal policies, or how the government gathers and spends money. Small businesses will appreciate his acknowledgment that the tax code needs reform.

Like

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.

Why? Rather than threatening to go solo with executive action, he urged Congress to deliberate and vote. That is the appropriate balance of power.

Like

Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.

Why? A decade of concentrated military and covert action on Al-Qaida and its supporters has diffused its power and influence. Working to build bridges and capabilities with would-be sponsor states is the right step. However, our vigilance must match the terrorists' vindictiveness.

Like

Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.

Why? Rather than pursue executive action, as was proposed at one point, Congress and the Senate should deliberate and vote on any gun measure. Sensible controls on certain types of weapons is warranted to prevent those most likely to commit crimes from obtaining and using them.

Here are a few points in the speech where I would click "Unlike":

Unlike

Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.

Why? Deficit reduction includes changes in spending. Currently government taxes, borrows and spends, which is fiscal policy. Every dollar government taxes or borrows takes it out of private sector consumption or crowds out private investment. Reducing government spending and the burden on private pocket books is absolutely an economic plan.

Unlike

Right now, there's a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today's rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What's holding us back?

Why? Government has inserted itself plenty in the housing market to the detriment of us all. The sub-prime mortgage bubble and crash was a catastrophic confluence of government incursion and irresponsible banking. A new report by NBER definitively ties the Community Reinvestment Act perpetuation from 1977 on by both parties to the housing crash. It is time to let the housing market work itself out.

Unlike

Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour....So here's an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.

Why? Federal government regulation of wages distorts labor markets and ends up costing jobs. In his textbook Macroeconomics, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells note what economists have long argued that high, mandated minimum wage leads to structural unemployment. In a nation with record-levels of youth unemployment, who would be willing to work for a lower wage for experience and to build college savings, we should allow them to do so. By raising wages, small businesses will be forced to hire fewer workers. Let the market govern wages, high and low.

Unlike

Negative, comabative tone of speech

Why? Unfortunately, I saw little effort to unify around a common vision or principles that would lift us above partisanship. Instead, he chided opponents of his policies for pushing "reckless cuts" in spending, and supposed "brinksmanship" and "manufactured crises". Yet, he ironically followed his plea for action on climate change with, "But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." Whether one agrees with his proposed policies or not, you have to click "Unlike" on his tact and statesmanship last night.

It's complicated

In my lifetime, I've never seen the branches of government, or the nation so divided on social, religous and economic issues. However, such divisions are not unprecedented in our nation's history. Grating, searing debates before and after the Revolutionary war cause fears of national rupture. The Civil War pitted a national family against itself and a cold, dark and bloody war. We have marched for and gained voting and civil rights for all. Our nation has faced down tyrannical regimes, tornado devastation, recessions and depressions.

We are indeed a complicated country, but whenever we face crises and internal conflict, we tend to return again to our founding principles; we are resilient and ever stronger for it.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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