Obama’s State of the Union speech, one year later


Don Clark is pictured on February 08, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Isaac Brekken/The Washington Post)
February 11, 2013

— UPS worker Don Clark hobbled on injured knees to see President Obama come to his warehouse last year to tout the main ideas in the annual State of the Union address — clean energy, tax fairness, a manufacturing revival and a stronger economy.

A year later, Clark still believes in Obama, but feels frustrated by the president’s struggle to get enough support for his agenda. “It’s incomplete and more work needs to be done,” Clark, 42, said at a bar near the shipping company’s warehouse here. “I have lowered expectations.”

Obama’s swing through Nevada and four other states last year serves as a powerful reminder of the limitations of the annual State of the Union speech, which Obama will deliver again on Tuesday night, and of the presidency itself.

Obama is likely to promote the same goals for the country that he did in last year’s address, a reflection of the fact that many of the major items on his agenda remain outstanding.

More broadly, Obama is still working to strengthen the economy in the profound ways he describes, facing both short-term challenges — such as an unemployment rate stuck near 8 percent — and long-term challenges, like slow-growing wages and an anxious middle class.

Nevada, one of the states worst hit by the recession, exemplifies the progress made under Obama, as well as the tremendous ground still to be covered. In interviews around Las Vegas — at a park, an outdoor mall, a college campus and a Home Depot parking lot — Obama’s supporters and opponents alike said he has not yet achieved what he set out to do: build a durably strong economy.

Some blamed him, while others accused Congress of standing in his way.

“He’s doing the best he can,” said Tone Pondaharn, a 34-year-old electrical engineering major at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Congress isn’t making it easy.”

But Jeanne Berry, who owns a pool cleaning business in the area, said Obama comes at the issue all wrong. “As long as we have this president who doesn’t understand business, we will continue to spiral downward,” she said. “My question is: ‘Who aspires to be only middle class?’ People aspire to be great.”

Obama enjoyed a strong victory in Nevada in November, edging out GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by seven percentage points and turning a recently red state decidedly blue. He won in part because of the power of Las Vegas’s labor unions, offsetting the conservative-leaning rural areas.

Over the past year, Nevada’s economy has begun to recover, with an unemployment rate that fell from 13 percent to 10.2 percent. Yet that rate is still the highest in the nation, tied with Rhode Island.

Nevada, which suffered a terrible housing crash, has seen home prices jump significantly in the past year. Yet it is still the most battered state in the nation, with more than one in two homeowners underwater — owing more on their properties than they are worth.

Deborah Shalev, a stay-at-home mom whose husband is a podiatrist, said she had hoped for more progress when Obama was first elected. But her family hasn’t recovered from the housing bust.

“I didn’t see as much change as he promised,” she said. “It’s still difficult for us. We’re still struggling with everyday payments.”

In last year’s State of the Union, Obama said that he was aiming for an “economy built to last.” The next day, he decamped on a three-day road trip, visiting five states — Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona and Michigan — armed with a laundry list of policy proposals geared toward strengthening the economy, spurring clean energy and manufacturing, and making college more affordable.

A year later, he has accomplished some of those goals, such as opening up more federal land for oil and gas exploration, one of several policies he could accomplish without congressional sign-off. But most of his more ambitious ideas — such as a change in the law to encourage manufacturers to set up shop in the United States instead of abroad — got little traction on Capitol Hill.

Mark Spector, an Obama supporter in Scottsdale, Ariz., who was forced to retire by the bad economy, said he didn’t see much value in the president’s post-State of the Union trip there last year. Obama visited a semiconductor plant under construction in the state, which his aides had (ultimately false) hopes of winning in last year’s election.

“That was a strictly political trip to attract the Latino vote . . . and maybe he could squeeze it into being a purple state,” Spector said in a telephone interview. “He and his advisers who were elected or appointed to oversee economic growth didn’t focus enough on it.”

But Jerry Kahl, another supporter in Storm Lake, Iowa, said Obama has done well. “I think he’s accomplished quite a bit, but I think that if he had a little bit more cooperation from Congress, he could accomplish a whole lot more,” Kahl said.

Back in Las Vegas, the union workers who were at Obama’s appearance’s last year at the UPS facility remain optimistic about his vision, even as they worry whether it will be achievable.

Obama stood in front of UPS trucks fueled by natural gas as an example of the nation’s clean-energy future.

Eddie Fischmann, a UPS delivery driver now on leave with the Teamsters, said Obama has succeeded in focusing the nation’s attention on problems like the need for workers to earn a living wage.

“He’s having a hard time getting his agenda through,” he said. “He’s not going to get the opposition to do everything he wants.”

Clark, his UPS colleague, still keeps his ticket from attending the event with the president in January 2012, saying Obama has led the country in a better direction.

“He has great ideas for rebuilding what’s been lost,” Clark said. “He doesn’t have the power to do everything he suggests.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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