Around the Institute

7 Takeaways From the State of the Union

January 13, 2016  • Aspen Institute Staff

state of the union

President Barack Obama gave his last State of the Union address last night, where he made note of the country’s progress and shortcomings, as well as a prescription for a better future. Below, Aspen Institute program directors react to Obama’s speech and what it means for the United States, by issue area.

The American Workforce

The jobs picture today is undeniably better than when President Obama took office — there are many more jobs and unemployment is down dramatically. President Obama is right to remind us how much better the economic picture is now. But he also should acknowledge the bad news that too many of the jobs in today’s economy are not good jobs.

The response to this dilemma for the most part has focused on education — the Obama administration has done much to expand access to education and skills training to help workers get skills to qualify for better jobs. This is a good thing, and we have the best-educated generation ever in today’s millennials. But education will not solve the challenges posed by changing technology, changing business norms, and weakened labor market regulations. In short, education doesn’t make bad jobs better.

It is promising to hear the president talk about lifting up business models and business leaders who succeed by investing in and rewarding their workforce. We need business leadership and business examples to point the way. But if we believe a strong economy is one that benefits everyone, and not just shareholders, then we shouldn’t shy away from the need for policy to set some standards for work.

Maureen Conway, vice president and executive director of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program

A Better Future for Americans

President Obama delivered a powerful call for all Americans to commit to one another and to live up to the ideals of the United States. He outlined a 21st century collective compact: “To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”

For the first time in our country’s history, Americans do not feel that things will be better for the next generation. One priority that does resonate across age, gender, geography, politics, race, and ethnicity is the fundamental desire to ensure the American Dream can pass from one generation to the next.

Education — from the earliest years when brain development is at its most rapid to higher education that leads to careers — is a critical lever. We must tap the full potential of families and communities as well as hold our systems and elected officials accountable for investing in what works for children and families.

Change is a given, but our values of equality, opportunity, compassion, and hard work are eternal. We are a strong, diverse country. As we confront the challenges ahead let us stay, as the president said, “clear-eyed, big-hearted, and optimistic.” It is time for us to embrace a collective commitment as individuals, communities, and a democracy to tackle inequality head on and build an intergenerational pathway of opportunity.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.” Different president, different time period, but it sure makes sense today.

Anne Mosle, vice president and executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute

American Businesses

During the president’s last State of the Union address, Obama made a promise that resonates in both parties and on the campaign trail: He promised to “lift up” businesses that do well for their employees and host communities, and called Wall Street’s fixation with quarterly profits a barrier to “a thriving private sector” that must serve as the “lifeblood of the economy.”

Giving visibility and support to companies that withstand market pressures to externalize costs can inspire others. What else is needed? For one, we need tax policy that rewards patient capital investment and discourages speculation. The capital gains tax can be restructured to reward-long term investment. A modest tax on speculative and machine trading would generate real revenue for basic infrastructure needs and for investment in science, technology, and new sources of energy.

These things matter to business and would help restore our leadership on the global stage. The goal is tax policy that establishes a level playing field and rewards business investment in the things that matter most to the health of our nation. These are centrist ideas that can appeal to both sides of the aisle.

Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute Business & Society ProgramEnergy

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama used the theme of technology and innovation to highlight several key accomplishments in the challenge to manage energy and climate change together. In a year that saw the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan finalized to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector by 32 percent by 2030, the Paris Climate Agreement signed, where 195 countries voluntarily agreed to reduce emissions, and a group pledge led by Bill Gates to invest in clean energy research and development, 2015 was certainly a good year for increasing our ability to produce cleaner energy. However, as the president correctly indicated, there is much more work to do.

The Clean Power Plan by itself gets the US less than halfway to its emission reduction target of reducing carbon 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from a 2005 baseline, and the ambitious goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050 is still far away. Within the energy sector, additional opportunities will need to be vigorously debated and action taken.

The transportation sector will become further decarbonized as the EPA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards increase stringency and the adoption of electric vehicles increases. Greater investment will be needed in new technologies, such as advanced nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage, utility scale electricity storage, and carbon removal technologies. Investment in these technologies, as well as innovation in markets and regulatory policy, will be needed over the coming years to reach our clean energy and climate goals of the future.

Greg Gershuny, James E. Rogers Energy Fellow with the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program


The president’s final State of the Union speech perfectly captures his view of the threats America faces, and how best to combat them. On terrorism in particular, he rightly acknowledged that ISIS, and terrorists in general, poses a serious threat to national security. But he went to some lengths to try to persuade the American people not to be unduly alarmed, and not to overreact. And, to a considerable degree, the president has it right.

But a line of thought can be true and dangerous at the same time. While true, there is the danger that this tendency to “put things in perspective” can lead to complacency and resignation. Certainly there is no military solution to terrorism. Terrorists are motivated by ideas — perverted and profane ideas — but ideas, and, as such, they can ultimately be defeated only by competing ideas.

But, I’m not convinced that we have done everything we can do — and should do — to cut off ISIS at its knees. The unwillingness to commit significant numbers of American troops to the fight to retake ISIS’ would-be caliphate in Iraq and Syria without the support of other nations, while understandable, is a serious mistake in my view. Unless and until this is done, it seems to me that the danger from ISIS, and other terror groups, will only grow greater.

Ours is not, and never will be, an ideal world. Absent willing partners (or even reluctant ones, for that matter), we must do what it takes to defend ourselves, and the standard for such action mustn’t be another 9/11. Making that level of destruction the criterion for action only makes the prospect of another 9/11 more likely.

Clark Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program

Homeland Security

The themes of American strength and leadership were on full display during President Obama’s final State of the Union speech last night. The foreign policy section, focused mainly on defeating ISIL, was long on America’s commitment to justice and its military reach, but surprisingly short on the other vital tool in our toolbox — diplomacy.

The word diplomacy appeared only once in last night’s speech — as the president spoke about the Iran deal. Yet it is precisely this vital instrument that likely saw the 10 US Navy sailors arrested by Iran released without incident. The strong rapport between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, forged over the long negotiation of the nuclear deal, led to new lines of communication that are credited with the quick release of the sailors. In the days and months ahead, it is vital to ensure diplomacy is placed at the front and center of America’s toolbox, as it is a cornerstone of America’s strength and a necessity to ensure America’s continued leadership.

Jonathon Price, deputy director of the Aspen Strategy Group

A Better Politics

President Obama’s last State of the Union speech was notable mostly for his call for “a better politics.” A healthier democracy, he said, isn’t about avoiding disagreements; it’s about having fewer stupid ones. And more important, doing so is our job more than his.

On the issues of democracy reform — redistricting, campaign finance, voting — the president reminded us that citizens must lead. As candidate Obama said in 2008, “We are the change we’ve been waiting for.” Unless everyday Americans by our actions rebut the storyline that the game is rigged beyond redemption, the game really will be rigged beyond redemption. On this, right and left can agree.

Indeed, Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s response speech was notable for the way it embodied the very qualities Obama was extolling: disagreement that is lucid and principled, but civil and even personable. That was encouraging, as was the president’s forceful pitch for diversity and tolerance — not as a matter of political correctness but as America’s core advantage. In the end, though, what really excited me about this speech is the vision of Barack Obama next year not as Mr. President but as Mr. Citizen. It gives me hope for the state of our union.

Eric Liu, director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program