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State of the Union

President Obama has much to tout, but major challenges await his successor

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Fourteen million new jobs. Unemployment at five percent. Gas prices at historic lows (adjusted for inflation). Stock market boom. Home prices rising. Inflation low and stable. Budget deficit slashed by two-thirds. Number of Americans lacking health insurance cut by more than a third. Best year ever for the U.S. auto industry in 2015.

As President Obama gave his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, he had plenty of good news to tout, which may well account for the permanent scowl on the face of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan throughout the speech. While the economy still faces major concerns, such as gross income inequality, chronic underemployment, and too many workers stuck in low wage jobs, it can’t be denied that the United States, under President Obama, has managed to mount an impressive and sustained recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression— a crisis that Obama inherited from President George W. Bush.

It’s worth remembering that when President Obama took office, the world was gripped in financial panic and jobs were vanishing in the U.S. at the astonishing rate of nearly a million per month. Unemployment was at 8.3 percent on its way to 10 percent later that year. The federal budget deficit sat at $1.4 trillion, a new high, and that was the budget Obama inherited from his predecessor. When the 2016 federal fiscal year comes to an end on Sept. 30 of this year, current forecasts put the deficit at $474 billion. It’s a lot, but it’s barely one-third the deficit that Obama inherited.

This, of course, isn’t the story one hears from Republicans. To hear them tell it, it’s been seven years of job-crushing big government, higher taxes, and death panels.

The disconnect is stunning, but it’s a storyline that Republicans are almost obligated to trot out. President Obama, after all, did raise taxes on the wealthy and he implemented Obamacare. In the Republican universe, the result should have been economic Armageddon, not the five-straight years of positive job numbers we’ve actually seen. And those numbers almost certainly would have been better had the Republicans in Congress not blocked other valuable economic initiatives backed by the president.

Americans, despite this undeniable progress, remain restive. In part, that’s because fueling discontent drives cable ratings and social media. Yet, as President Obama acknowledged, Americans are well aware that the rules of the economic game have shifted over the past generation, and not in favor of the average family. As America’s economy recovers, the financial rewards have filtered overwhelmingly to the very top— and that’s distorting both our economy and our political process. Adding insult to injury, are right-wing Supreme Court decisions, like Citizens United, that have increasingly given billionaires unprecedented control of our politics.

These are issues that future presidents will need to take seriously if we hope to maintain the world’s strongest economy and salvage what remains of our democracy in the U.S.

The unconscionable economic inequality that exists in the country today has a multitude of causes, but one of the most significant, unquestionably, is the expansion of so-called “free trade” agreements. These trade deals are negotiated in secret, mostly by industry lobbyists and attorneys, and they have put the owners of capital in the economic catbird’s seat, at the expense of working people. That’s why President Obama’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, yet another trade deal that furthers this trend, is one of the most significant black marks on his term of office. Unfortunately, giving multinational corporations ever more economic and political power seems to be an area of too much bipartisan agreement in Washington these days. If President Obama gets Congress to back his TPP proposal, it will be primarily with the backing of Republicans. We’d rather see the GOP continue its reflexive anti-Obama intransigence on that particular issue.

As is typical of any administration, President Obama’s tenure offers a mixed bag. But unlike his predecessor, whose policies sparked the worst economic collapse in generations, left the nation bogged down in two wars of choice, and turned a budget surplus into the largest deficit in U.S. history, President Obama, as he nears the exit, can truly say that he has done yeoman’s work during his time in the White House. He did so, while facing some of the most fanatical (at times, delusional) opposition any president has faced in generations. It hasn’t been easy… and he has the gray hairs to prove it.

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