On January 12, 2016, President Barack Obama gave his eighth — and final — State of the Union address. During this speech, he posed four questions to Congress, the country, and his eventual successor about the future beyond his presidency. With the inauguration only two days away, I decided to reach out to some of my fellow Americans and pick their brains as the nation prepares for Obama to pass the torch to President-elect Donald J. Trump.
President Obama is arguably leaving behind a much stronger economy than he inherited in January 2009. After a record 75 months of job growth, 15 million net jobs were created while the unemployment rate fell to 4.7% after a peak of almost 10%. But there is still work to be done, such as in the manufacturing industry where the President-elect won massive support. Wealth and income inequality are still high — especially for women and minorities. This sparks Obama’s first question: How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
“Stop paying under the table,” says John from North Wales, Pennsylvania. The 24-year-old veteran and Libertarian stresses the creation of “a completely different tax plan,” one more beneficial to those making less than $50,000 a year. Anthony, from Houston, Texas, stresses using history as a benchmark for progress.
“We cannot be blind to the injustices of the past,” the 19-year-old Democrat proclaims. “We must look at those injustices and take into account those who have been wronged today as a result of those injustices. Social programs and [bettering] our education system will be fundamental in doing so.”
“Achieving complete equality of opportunity is an unfeasible goal,” says Ken, a 26-year-old graduate student and unaffiliated voter from New York City. “However, further investments in technical and occupational education and retraining programs at the local level will likely be helpful. Single-payer health insurance — like the rest of the developed world — would also help achieve better medical outcomes and quality of life.”
Technology saw vast advancement during the Obama era, becoming a major political topic from social media’s role in the election to the secret collection of metadata and the much-debated drone strike program. Net neutrality was continually discussed and Apple clashed with the FBI over the ethics of encryption around the government-issued iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter. All this, as well as the climate change debate, begs Obama’s second question: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
Adam, from Abington, Pennsylvania, believes “we should use technology to create the world we to live in.” The 34-year-old Democrat stressed the need “to retrain our workforce to build the infrastructure of this technology.”
“Listen to scientists and researchers who are experts in their field in order to advocate for technology that will benefit the earth,” declares Michaella from Boston, Massachusetts. The 23-year-old educator expressed the need for keeping “an open mind” and taking small steps individually, such as recycling and turning off lights when not in use.
“Make sure those who are creating tech are considering the environment,” says Christie, also from Boston. “Make incentives for people to go green, or harsh repercussions for those who don’t.”
Keith, from Stuart, Florida, says “the government should declassify a lot of information, giving more power to the people.” The 25-year-old unaffiliated voter is skeptical, however, stating this turn of events “probably will not happen.”
We have learned over time that, more often than not, Obama is not inherently interventionist. This seems to be a position that both he and Trump share. While the former believes in the responsibility of international institutions and that multilateral action “regulates hubris,” the latter has a seemingly simpler approach: “America first.” With that in mind, Obama asks: How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
“We need to recognize that the military is not capable of policing,” urges Stephen, a 28-year-old unaffiliated voter from Arlington, Virginia. He warns against the path of military expansion. “To treat the military like police and the police like the military is to both endanger us all and do a disservice to both groups.”
Jallah, a Republican from Minneapolis, Minnesota, agrees with Obama and Trump, expressing the need for the United States to “truly be neutral in global matters” — especially regarding the Middle East. “Stop trying to impose ‘the American way’ on the world,” says the 41-year-old entrepreneur and supporter of the President-elect. “Let those people choose their own destiny.”
“Ignorant and bigoted beliefs held by large populations can lead to unnecessary hostility,” says Naveed, a 23-year-old unaffiliated voter from Boston. “Understanding and empathizing with your ‘enemies,’ mutually, is the ultimate solution. Until we can achieve that ideal balance we must use physical force and exert our moral judgment as best as possible. But that is tough because judgment is subjective and cannot always be clear cut. Disagreements may be unavoidable.”
2016 was an extremely divisive election season. There was a lot of controversy: both Black Lives Matter protests and the Syrian Civil War escalated; Clinton’s email scandal revealed the depth of the Democratic National Committee’s unethical political practices, leaving a poor taste in voters’ mouths; and Trump’s campaign rhetoric and “locker room talk” placed the two among the most historically disliked presidential candidates in modern history. The American people cast their votes and, when the dust settled, Mr. Trump emerged the victor. Notwithstanding, his popular vote loss and recent approval ratings indicate a majority of the American people do not like him. Understanding what this means: How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?
“Take big money out of politics,” Jallah suggests, “and design a platform that allows everyone who wishes to partake in debates a fair chance to be heard. Now, the challenge will be narrowing it down to the more serious candidates and avoid having a bunch of folks turn the process into a reality TV show.”
“Americans need a common purpose and identity that is not inherently tied to whiteness and masculinity,” says Scott, a 22-year-old Democrat from Boston. To him, this means “helping poor White Americans realize they have the same exact problems as poor Black, Brown, Latino, Asian” and other Americans in similar circumstances.
Ken agrees with this sentiment. “While psychological validation is indeed important for members of a number of groups,” he says, “my sense is that ultimately too little emphasis is placed on creating a unified national identity by the media. In our haste to recognize sub-categories of Americans, the political dialogue — on all sides — has followed to neglect a unifying narrative and grand goals that all Americans can support.”
In two days, President-elect Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office, marking the beginning of his first 100-day sprint on the path to “make America great again.” His critics consider the incoming administration volatile and dangerous. His supporters consider him a breath of fresh air and are excited to “drain the swamp” with the President-elect and his business-savvy cabinet. Regardless of your politics, one thing is certain: after Friday, we’re in for one hell of a ride.