State of the Union: Obama cracks jokes and talks about immigration, exports and Latin America

Posted on January 27, 2011 by

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By Curtis Prendergast

President Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday.  Among the issues he discussed were several that are particularly relevant to the Arizona / Sonora borderlands.

The annual speech is a requirement laid out in the Constitution. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution reads, in part: “He [the president] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  Taking into consideration the wide array of topics important to Americans and the time constraints of giving a speech, it is significant that President Obama chose to include immigration reform, expanding exports, and strengthening ties with Latin American countries.

This year differed from previous State of the Union addresses in that members of Congress did not sit in the chamber along party lines.  Instead, Republicans and Democrats intermingled in the seating arrangement. It was also a surprisingly humorous speech, peppered with jokes.

The president used humor to address the federal government’s financial support of the oil industry:

“We need to get behind this innovation.  And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.  (Applause.)  I don’t know if — I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. (Laughter.)  So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

He also poked fun at the new security measures at airports:

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.  (Applause.)  This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car.  For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down. (Laughter and applause.)  As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.”

He even managed to inject humor into the contentious health care reform debate:

Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law. (Laughter.)  So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved.  If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you.  We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses.  (Applause.)”

The president used humor to call for a reorganization of the federal government:

“We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV.  There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports.  There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy.  Then there’s my favorite example:  The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. (Laughter.)  I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked. (Laughter and applause.)”

The “contentious and frustrating and messy” process of political compromise was also a source for a joke:

“We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit –- none of this will be easy.  All of it will take time.  And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs.  The details.  The letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don’t have this problem.  If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed.  If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.  (Applause.)”

Even with so much humor, the speech had its serious moments.  Early on in the speech the president mentioned Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was unable to attend as she recovers from being shot on January 8.  A chair was left vacant in her honor next to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). Dr. Peter Rhee, the chief trauma surgeon at the University Medical Center who oversaw Giffords’ medical care while she was in Tucson, was also in attendance.

The president said of Giffords:

“Tonight I want to begin by congratulating the men and women of the 112th Congress, as well as your new Speaker, John Boehner.  (Applause.)  And as we mark this occasion, we’re also mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and we pray for the health of our colleague — and our friend -– Gabby Giffords.  (Applause.)

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years.  The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs.  And that’s a good thing.  That’s what a robust democracy demands.  That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -– something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family.  We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.”

Many other citizens mentioned in the president’s speech were also in attendance, including the owner of a small business that made the drilling equipment used to free 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days last year.

The president also mentioned the children of undocumented immigrants and foreign-born students that are educated in the United States:

“One last point about education.  Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens.  Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet they live every day with the threat of deportation.  Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities.  But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us.  It makes no sense.

Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration.  And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.  (Applause.)  I know that debate will be difficult.  I know it will take time.  But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort.  And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.  (Applause.)”

The president’s mention of “children of undocumented workers” was a reference to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), which died in the Senate in December after being passed by the House of Representatives.  The bill would have created a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants who were born in another country but grew up in the United States.  If they are enrolled in college or serve in the military, they would be granted a means to gain citizenship.

Immigration reform has been a part of President Obama’s platform since his election campaign.  The controversy over SB 1070 was thought by many to have squelched any chance that comprehensive immigration reform would be attempted in the near future.  The president’s comments explicitly called on the government to “take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration.”  As the crossing site for nearly half of all undocumented Mexican immigrants, Arizona will be directly affected by any new immigration or border security legislation.

The president also discussed the importance of exports in the national economy.  This has been a theme in the president’s discourse on the economy for months. Last year the president created the National Export Initiative to promote exports as a means to national economic recovery. In the past few months he has visited India and hosted the leader of China, with job creation through exports being an important topic of discussion.

“To help businesses sell more products abroad, we set a goal of doubling our exports by 2014 -– because the more we export, the more jobs we create here at home.  Already, our exports are up.  Recently, we signed agreements with India and China that will support more than 250,000 jobs here in the United States.  And last month, we finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs.  This agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans — and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible.  (Applause.)

In southern Arizona, the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales is one of the largest crossing points for fruits and vegetables in the country.  Nogales, Sonora is also home to dozens of maquiladoras, factories that are located just south of the border but are owned by non-Mexicans. Through trade agreements, these factories are able to avoid the tariff regimes applied to most imports.  It is likely that government support of exports will impact Nogales and southern Arizona. The $200 million dollars provided by the federal government in the last two years to expand Mariposa indicates that this port of entry is a high priority for the federal government.

The president also discussed strengthening ties with Latin America:

“Now, before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs.  That’s what we did with Korea, and that’s what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks.  (Applause.)”

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“This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas.  Around the globe, we’re standing with those who take responsibility -– helping farmers grow more food, supporting doctors who care for the sick, and combating the corruption that can rot a society and rob people of opportunity.”

His trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador will be his first trip to South America as president. While in Brazil, President Obama will meet with the newly-elected president Dilma Rousseff.  Chile has been a close South American ally of the U.S. government since 1973.  In El Salvador, it is likely the president will discuss the large number of Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States and the spread of transnational violence and organized crime that plagues both El Salvador and the U.S. / Mexico border region.

As can be seen from the quotes above, the president called on Congress to take action on reforming immigration laws, expanding exports, and working with Latin American countries.  His call to expand exports is built on previous policy statements and projects, such as the National Export Initiative. His trip to South American will expand previous relationships.  These are processes that can be broken down into small steps.  Is the same true of immigration reform?  During the past year, Republicans have focused on securing the border, while the Democrats have called for comprehensive immigration reform.  Are there small steps that both parties can agree to take in the coming year? After the ferocious debate over SB 1070, is a meaningful compromise over immigration reform still possible?

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Follow this link to watch an enhanced version of the speech on the official White House website.

Follow this link to read an official transcript of the speech.

Follow this link to read about the National Export Initiative.

Follow this link to read a story on produce imported through the Mariposa Port of Entry.

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