President Obama’s State of the Union: the Good, the Not-So-Good, and the Missing

January 29, 2014 | 7:10 pm
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

President Obama covered a wide range of issues in last night’s State of the Union speech, with much of it focused on the need for more aggressive action on issues like economic inequality, unemployment, education and training. But he also addressed several of the issues that UCS works on directly, especially climate change and energy.


Official White House photo by Amanda Lucidon

Climate change: full speed ahead

On climate change, the president brushed aside those in Congress and elsewhere who question the reality of the problem. “The debate is settled,” he said. “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

The president underscored how climate-related impacts are already affecting local communities across the country, stating that “we have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.” UCS and others have documented how these impacts – and their costs – will increase in the years to come if we don’t take concerted action. Mayors, governors, and other local leaders are on the front lines of the real-world fight to avert the worst impacts of climate change; it would have been good to hear the president more directly acknowledge the need for the federal government to ramp up its assistance to them in that fight.

In last year’s State of the Union address, the president called on Congress “to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But,” he warned, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” This time around, he didn’t even bother to call on Congress to act.  For the sad reality is that Congress is AWOL on this issue. Too many members reject the science and many more buy the economic scare stories the fossil fuel industry is selling.

Given this paralysis, the president is right to do exactly what he said he was going to do in last year’s address, by moving full steam ahead on the Climate Action Plan he laid out at Georgetown University last June. The centerpiece of that plan is the president’s memorandum ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to establish standards on the amount of carbon pollution that the nation’s power plants are allowed to dump into the air; the proposed rule for existing power plants is to be put forward no later than June 1 of this year.

As the president has noted in previous speeches, it will take global collaboration on an unprecedented level for humanity to come to grips with the climate crisis, and the United States is an essential player in this process. President Obama clearly gets it that to be a global leader on climate change, other countries need to see we’re doing our part here at home. By recommitting his administration to action last night, the president has further bolstered the nation’s credibility and leverage on the international stage.

Clean vehicles and fuels: good progress, but not done yet

The president called on Congress last night to provide additional incentives for more efficient trucks, advanced vehicles, and cellulosic biofuels; there’s a little more detail in the White House’s State of the Union fact sheet than there was in the speech itself. While the devil will be in the details, these initiatives are welcome, and deserve bipartisan support from Congress.

President Obama also committed to keep working to improve vehicle efficiency. “When we rescued our automakers,’ he said, “we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months, I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks, so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.” The President is right that there is more we can do to cut our oil use in half through efficiency and innovation. By cutting oil use, and being smart about managing all our fuel sources, we can reduce the problems oil causes our economy, our security, our environment and our climate. But we must not undermine that practical goal by giving oil companies carte blanche to go after so-called “new oil” that is dirtier, more difficult and expensive to extract.

Natural gas: not so fast

President Obama devoted a fair amount of attention in last night’s speech to the nation’s expanding production and use of natural gas, stating that “if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.” Substituting natural gas for coal in electricity production can indeed make a contribution to reducing carbon pollution in the near-term, though we must make sure that fugitive methane emissions from gas production and use don’t overwhelm these carbon benefits. But ultimately, we need to virtually eliminate carbon pollution from all sources — including natural gas — if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. An overreliance on natural gas over the long-term will not achieve the emissions reductions needed to address global warming, and threatens to crowd out the investments we need to build a low-carbon electricity future based on renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency.

Also, when it comes to expanded oil and gas production, the federal government needs to take a much stronger role in protecting communities, and work with states to strengthen regulation and oversight of these industries. As UCS’s toolkit on fracking makes clear, too many communities are being pressed to make decisions on new production projects without access to comprehensive and reliable scientific information about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on their local air and water quality, com­munity health, safety, economy, environment, and overall quality of life. President Obama needs to act on these issues despite resistance from the fossil fuel companies and their allies in Congress.

Three missing issues

Finally, there were several important issues that received surprisingly little attention in President Obama’s speech last night.

Trade:  While the President stressed the benefits of trade, and briefly mentioned the trade pacts now being negotiated with the European Union as well as with a set of key Asian countries, he didn’t address the mounting concerns amongst both public interest groups and members of Congress about the substance of these new agreements, as well as the lack of transparency in the negotiating process. It is crucial that these and other trade agreements are crafted to protect public health and safety and the environment, with standards based on the best available science. And these agreements must be negotiated in the sunlight, permitting the American public and law makers access to their details before they are concluded.

Food and farm policy: While the president referred to First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, he neglected to address the disconnect between health and nutrition policies, on the one hand, and our national agricultural policy on the other. Far too many adult Americans are struggling with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic ailments linked to diet; the treatment of these diseases costs our healthcare system hundreds of billions of dollars a year. As my colleague Ricardo Salvador points out, the government recommends “filling half our plate with fruits and vegetables [as] the most potent and effective prescription for avoiding health-impairing, life-threatening diseases,” but then ends up “undermining its own recommendations by pouring taxpayer dollars into agricultural subsidies that make junk food cheap.”

As a recent UCS report documents, “transitioning the American diet to one that includes less processed food and meat, and more fruits and vegetables, would…have positive effects—not only in improved nutrition and health for consumers but also in the form of significant benefits for the environment and farm country’s local economies.” Of course, pursuing such a shift in food and farm policies would require taking on some real sacred cows (pun intended), and it’s perhaps understandable why on the eve of politically sensitive votes in the House and Senate on a compromise Farm Bill, the president was reluctant to raise these issues last night.

Nuclear weapons: President Obama boasted in his speech that “American diplomacy has rallied more than 50 countries to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, and allowed us to reduce our own reliance on Cold War stockpiles.” Locking down nuclear materials is an important achievement that UCS fully supports, and the president should be applauded for reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, his speech included no steps to either further reduce the bloated U.S. nuclear stockpile or to take our missiles off dangerous high alert levels.

The long-term objective must be to de-legitimize nuclear weapons as instruments of national security and eventually lead to a world free of nuclear weapons. Unless the United States and other nuclear weapons states start taking more steps in this direction, more countries—and eventually terrorists—will acquire nuclear weapons. Less than three months after taking office, President Obama gave a stirring speech on this issue in Prague, where he said “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” It’s too bad that he didn’t use the occasion of the State of the Union address to signal his own personal commitment to make real progress towards this goal during his remaining years in office.