President Obama is likely to say America is “getting stronger” as he did last year, or use some other optimistic phrase when he delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday.
But four years into the tenure of the first black president, the true state of our union is complicated. The U.S. remains the world’s largest economy and the most influential nation in foreign affairs. The American economy has recovered from the 2008 crisis, as private sector jobs have increased for the last 35 months. Companies like Google and Apple that are based in the U.S. show the country’s strength in innovation and technology, while universities like Harvard are considered among the best on the globe. America remains a place where people from all over the world want to come and live.
And some marked improvements for the U.S. have taken place in the Obama era, specifically because of the president’s decisions. As Vice President Biden said repeatedly during the presidential campaign, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Millions of Americans already have greater access to health care services because of “Obamacare,” and the U.S. is moving closer to a country in which only a small minority of people won’t have health insurance.
But major challenges remain. A series of mass shootings, as well as a rise in murders in Chicago, have illustrated a gun violence problem in America. The intense partisanship Obama promised to end in 2008 has only increased during his presidency. And now it’s not just the parties sharply attacking one another during election season, but a partisan divide on the economy and the role of government so deep that even funding the government or paying off the U.S. debt often turns into a long, protracted battle that dominates headlines and creates economic uncertainty.
And the American economy is still far from strong. More than 12 million Americans are jobless, while another 8 million are working part-time only because they can’t find full-time work. The economy has officially been “recovering” for more than three years now, but the jobless rate remains stubbornly high. It was at or below 5 percent for much of the Bush era, but has been around 8 percent for the last year.
The racial progress shown in electing a black president has not yet become a reality for African-American workers, as the black jobless rate is at 14 percent, about double what it is for whites, continuing a long historical trend.
The president and his team are aware of these challenges. His speech on Tuesday is expected to focus heavily on the economy, as well as include a push for Congress to pass his proposals on gun control and immigration reform.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.