Mr. Kristof is on book leave. Mr. Blow considers “The Real Obama” and says this is how politicians who needn’t worry about re-election look: more like themselves. Ms. Collins, in “The State of the 4-Year-Olds,” says when it comes to preschool, everything old is new again. And again. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Is this the real Barack Obama? I hope so. I like this one.
The president used Tuesday’s State of the Union address to detail a vision of America’s future, and his second term, in which the country is not in perpetual war, government plays an expansive role, Congressional obstruction is named and shamed and he is bold and unapologetically progressive.
This is how politicians who needn’t worry about re-election look: more like themselves.
The speech was a full-throated rebuke and disavowal of the conservative argument that government must shrink and cower. It was a rebuke of the economic theory that a government’s role in revival is to retreat and lift regulations. It was an embrace of the country’s growth and diversity and an elevation of those down on their luck. And it was a bring-it-on gesture to the gun lobby and the politicians who fear it.
He aimed much of the speech at a still-struggling middle class, but it was also an open appeal to the poor — those with jobs and without.
He proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage — from $7.25 an hour to $9 — and to “tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”
And in what I thought was commendable for a president who has taken some knocks — including from me — for not focusing enough on the poor, he said:
“Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”
He proposed a revamping of our educational system, from universal “high quality preschool” to a redesign of high schools “so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy” and changing the Higher Education Act “so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.”
Many of the president’s plans will need to be fleshed out. Some will require Congressional action. But some of what the president proposed can be accomplished through executive action. And this president made clear once again that he would act where he could if Congress refused to act.
For instance, he said: “I urge this 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 if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
And the president defied political cowards, some in his own party, and called for a vote on gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban.
The president said: “It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform — like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they are tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned. Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
The president dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the issue of gun control, and it was the most moving and effective part of the speech. He recognized the hard politics of the issue, but still issued the challenge. He knows well that there are vulnerable Democratic senators in red states who are wary of such a vote, but the president still stood up for what he and most Americans know.
The president said: “This time is different.”
I say: this president seems different. He seems more confident and sure. He seems aware of the animus that greets him, but not cowed by it.
He seems to have decided to move beyond his political opponents and the pundits and talk directly to the American people. It seems a smart tactical turn: running away from the circus.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
One of the big moments of the State of the Union address was President Obama’s call for “high-quality preschool” for 4-year-olds.
Nobody was happier at the idea than Walter Mondale, the former vice president. “This is going to be wonderful,” he said in a phone conversation. His delight was sort of inspiring. If I had been down the road Mondale has traveled, my mood would have been a little darker.
In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the Congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family’s ability to pay.
And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing “communal approaches to child rearing.” Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.
And President Obama is trying, against great odds, to do something for 4-year-olds.
People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.
Would it be different if all the children born over the last 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education — programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked, but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course?
We’ll never know.
Mondale’s Comprehensive Child Development Act was a bipartisan bill, which passed 63 to 17 in the Senate. It was an entitlement, and, if it had become law, it would have been one entitlement for little children in a world where most of the money goes to the elderly.
“We came up with a lot of proposals, but the one we were most excited about was early childhood education. Everything we learned firmed up the view this really works,” said Mondale.
The destruction of his bill was one of the earliest victories of the new right. “The federal government should not be in the business of raising America’s children. It was a political and ideological ideal of great importance,” Pat Buchanan once told me. He was working at the White House when the bill reached Nixon’s desk, and he helped write the veto message. He spoke about this achievement with great pride.
The saga of the demise of the Comprehensive Child Development Act is an excellent explanation of why President Obama was prepared to go through so much political trauma to pass health care reform, even when many of his own party members were begging him to drop back, do something less earth-shaking and wait for a better moment.
The better moment might never come.
After Gerald Ford became president, the early childhood education bill’s supporters tried to resurrect the plan. They had hardly done anything besides agree that they probably ought to wait until after the 1976 election, when they were hit with a political tsunami. Members of Congress started getting hundreds and hundreds — sometimes thousands and thousands — of hysterical letters accusing them of plotting to destroy the American family.
This was before constituent e-mail, when that kind of outpouring was shocking, particularly since a number of the writers seemed to believe that Congress was plotting to allow children to organize labor unions and sue their parents for making them do chores.
“That was really the beginning of the Tea Party. The right wing started to turn on this thing viciously,” said Mondale. “They said it was a socialist scheme. They were really pounding the members of Congress and a lot of people got cold feet.”
Nobody really knew where it was all coming from. A reporter for The Houston Chronicle traced the hysteria back to a man in Kansas who had written the leaflet, based on information he’d received from a revival in Missouri, which he told the reporter he had since learned was almost all completely wrong.
But that was it. Later, people would begin proposing modest preschool programs, particularly for the offspring of poor women who were required to work after the repeal of welfare entitlements in the Clinton years. But there would never again be a serious attempt to guarantee all American families access to quality early education and after-school programs.
The president proposes doing something for 4-year-olds. This is a great idea. Mondale is certainly enthusiastic. But still.