State of the Union Priorities: A Path Forward

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By Atiba Madyun

This week, I attended a White House briefing on the President’s initiatives addressed in his State of the Union address.  His staff spoke on Cradle to Career education initiatives, My Brother’s Keeper, criminal justice reform, minimum wage and family sick leave.  They emphasized a sense of urgency and that the President has 22 months left to move an agenda focused on strengthening the middle class and investing in America’s future.

On education, the President believes no young person’s zip code should determine his/her future.  While the nation has its highest high school graduation rate ever (80%), it can link its high school dropout rate to 1,300 of the Nation’s schools. Therefore, the President has a new national goal to prepare the next generation(s) for high quality education and a bright future.

To achieve these new goals, it will require greater participation and accountability.  Like the old African proverb, It Takes a Village to raise a child, every child’s grandparents, parents, communities and schools should work collaboratively in this effort.  The President wants to increase America’s rank in providing high quality Pre-K access to high risk children.  Currently, according to Early Education for All, the U.S. ranks 28th out of 38 industrial nations that provide Pre-K and “the achievement gap between low-income children and their affluent peers is growing.[i]

By creating better pathways, students will have a better chance to graduate high school putting them on a pathway to college and enhanced career choices. To close the access gap, we have to address cost and make college more affordable for students that work hard and get good grades.  Opening access and making the first two years of community college free is a way to help students attain a higher education without going deep into debt before starting their career.

Increasing the minimum wage will help many Americans including some college students.  In 2017, 7 million Americans will benefit from minimum wage increases.[ii]  Making family sick leave available so employees working full time get at least seven days of sick leave a year makes sense for the employee and employer.  It can help businesses maintain low turnover while allowing employees to stay home when they are sick so they don’t get coworkers sick.  It also helps employees care for sick loved ones during episodes of illness.

Additionally, protecting and promoting family values also leads to success for America’s youth.  Each day, an average of eight children and teens are killed by guns.  Last year, we heard one too many stories of young men killed by police officers that set off a firestorm of protests.

Recognizing that too many young men are off track, the President one year ago this month, introduced My Brother’s Keeper (MBK).  Later in the year, a month after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the President issued a challenge to cities, towns and tribes to become “MBK Communities” to implement coherent cradle to college and career strategy to improve outcomes for young people.  It addresses serious concerns in the African American, Hispanic and Native American tribal community.

MBK is seeking to find ways to save young people from a pathway that leads to prison. These are tied to his initiatives for education.  As early as pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, some 4 and 5 year olds have been suspended for negative behavior that can be typical of a child who is developing social-emotional skills. This is not how we should be supporting young children in their early years.  Data shows the nation’s greatest challenges dropout rates, crime, health-care costs, competing in the global marketplace – can be met by focusing on the development of all children, beginning at birth.

The President asserts a child’s future should not be predetermined by his/her zip code.  The Ounce of Prevention Fund research shows that at-risk children who don’t receive a high-quality early childhood education are[iii]:

  • 25% more likely to drop out of school
  • 40% more likely to become a teen parent
  • 50% more likely to be placed in special education
  • 60% more likely to never attend college
  • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

Early childhood programs are the most cost-effective way to ensure the healthy development of children in poverty and offer the greatest returns to society.In DC, where Pre-K is offered in every elementary school, Councilmember David Grosso recognized this and introduced legislation to positively address this growing trend to protect our 4 and 5 year olds and find better ways to promote positive social and emotional development.

MBK can be a vital instrument in impacting the lives of young American men.  To sustain and create greater opportunities, it is securing corporate, advocacy and community partners to better engage young men.  It is identifying long term solutions to their growth and prosperity in American society.  And all of the President’s cabinet agencies with focus on domestic policy are engaged in this effort.  More importantly, the President has expressed his and the First Lady’s commitment to work on MBK long after they leave the White House.

Mandatory sentencing laws have hurt families for too long.  The President’s staff and the Justice Department are looking for better ways to address re-entry, so that people can re-enter society better equipped to find employment, stay out of prison and empower them with the right to vote.  His Task Force on 21st Century Policing is looking at how billions of dollars are being spent in the militarization of police departments.  Body cameras and collaborative reform are great.  Here is not only a need, but an excellent opportunity on Capitol Hill for bipartisan support.

What the Administration and Congress might also consider is a national database to track the number of times police officers fire their weapons, injure and kill as well as kill unarmed individuals.  While body cameras are a great first step, it is vital to have policy guidelines defining when an officer turns them on and who views the footage.

As Americans, we can study the President’s proposals and look at like a shareholder of a company would.  Whether it is increasing the minimum wage, creating seamless pathways to attaining higher education, protecting our young men and law enforcement officials, providing greater upward mobility opportunities, they all look to strengthen our nation and our economy.  That’s a win-win as an American shareholder and a great way to invest in America’s future!

Atiba

Atiba Madyun is the President of The Madyun Group, a Public Affairs firm based in Washington, DC.

Learn more about My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) www.whitehouse.gov/MBK or visit www.mbk.org.

[i] Early Education for All –  http://www.strategiesforchildren.org/docs_research/14_International.pdf

 [ii] The White House – www.whitehouse.gov/raise-the-wage

 [iii] Ounce of Prevention Fund – http://www.ounceofprevention.org/about/why-early-childhood-investments-work.php

A 4th Quarter To Remember…..

Comeback

“Don’t call this a comeback. I’ve been here for years!”

“My Presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.” President Barack Obama

This is the fourth quarter of President Obama’s presidency and tonight’s State of the Union (SOTU) address will be the most important of his Presidency. Based on his activity the past two weeks, we see a roadmap that might work his last two years in office.

Tonight, the President will focus on his achievements and they are significant.  The nation’s economy is stronger and we are better off than we were six years ago!  There have been over 50 months of consistent job growth. The stock market is soaring at historic highs.  Now, he can refocus our attention on education and income inequality proposals that will strengthen the middle class.

He can highlight why he signed executive orders addressing immigration reform, family leave & minimum wage for federal contractors and opening relations with Cuba.  With a contentious Republican Congress opposed to everything the President puts forward, tonight’s SOTU address and events planned tomorrow and Thursday should help the President share his agenda.

The past few weeks, the President and the White House have used social media and speeches to reengage and reenergize Americans. He has met with Americans across the country to put forward proposals that can strengthen the middle class and build on the progress made creating jobs and growing our economy.  (Watch the President discuss increasing broadband speed )

It is important that these things to work to reenergize his base and to get more Americans onboard because as President, Obama has failed to draw large audiences for the SOTU.  His largest audience was 48 million in 2010 and lowest was 33.3 million last year.  Based on Nielson ratings, past Presidents Clinton and Bush drew over 50 million viewers at least once for their State of the Union addresses. 

What these numbers don’t show are who watch on social media or wait for media analysis. The President’s Administration may be more connected to a younger demographic than past presidents, as was evident in his 2008 election and reelection in 2012. 

Events like tomorrow’s Big Block of Cheese Day, where participants ask questions of White House administration officials on social media using hashtag #AskTheWH can only enhance his reach and access to wider audiences. Thursday’s YouTube Interview with President Obama is another opportunity for the President to expand his reach along with numerous WH conference calls with stakeholders hours and days after the SOTU.

That’s why the President’s speech is important. It frames his message on healthcare, climate control, free community college tuition, broadband, net neutrality, the killing of unarmed Americans and killing of police officers, community policing strategies, the economy, taxes, terrorism abroad, job growth, income inequality and immigration.  All important American issues that we can move with FORWARD with him.

How he engages the support of millions of Americans to fulfill his campaign promise to strengthen the middle class leaving no American behind is important tonight and help him finish strong.

Two years passes fast.  The President is reenergized and appears, whether I or you agree or disagree with his executive actions, with the leadership and energy needed to help him finish strong.  It is great to see this fourth quarter push that reminds of the Seattle Seahawks improbable comeback this past Sunday.  They won by giving it all they had even when many like myself thought the game was over when it 16-0 at the half.  Now they are in the Super Bowl because they never quit. 

If the President continues this course and reenergizes his base the sky’s the limit.  If he communicates his plan effectively, I like his chances to finish his Presidency and this fourth quarter in a way that will forever be remembered!

Click here to view Road to SOTU: President’s Policy Proposals to Help All Americans and how to participate Wednesday in Big Block of Cheese Day and Thursday’s YouTube Interview with President Obama

Resolute

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At yesterday’s White House news conference, correspondents were chomping at the bit to ask the President questions about Boston, health care reform, Syria and gun legislation.  

Standing at the podium for 30 minutes, he gave long tentative answers before looking at his watch and telling reporters, “One more question.”  It was good he concluded before giving his political enemies even more opportunity to exploit the perception that he is weak and fails to lead.  

But, as he left the podium, there was one final question that allowed the President to give the type of heartfelt response we have come to appreciate.  It was about Jason Collins, the first active professional male athlete from one of the four major sports to openly admit to being gay. It is moments like this that make it difficult for some to criticize him, even when he is unable to get overwhelming, publicly supported gun legislation passed.

Being President of the United States might be the most difficult job in the world, but it is more difficult when leaders fail to effectively communicate their vision for public policy. President Franklin Roosevelt, our nation’s longest serving president, used the radio and his famous fireside chats to calm the nation’s fears and explain his policies for social change. President Ronald Reagan during his presidency not only used the Oval Office, he began traditional presidential weekly radio addresses that are still delivered today.

Today, political pundits, bloggers and others in the media twist messages to cater to their audience. And, while the President in 2008 limited lobbyist access to the White House, he has failed to use his most powerful lobbyist, the American people, to get legislation and a budget through Congress.

It’s amazing because without enlisting the American people, we have seen ObamaCare get passed.  He has led the nation out of the Great Recession, and made the decision to go in and capture Osama bin Laden.  But he has been weakened by Congress’ bickering and an incessant need to find middle ground. Thus, we don’t have a budget and have a budget sequester with no resolution in sight.  If politics and perception are about appearance, this doesn’t look good.

Even when we disagree, we respect and honor our Presidents in life and death.  We watch them age before our eyes as they make the difficult decisions only they can. This is why we look at our Presidents differently when they speak from the Oval Office.  Sitting behind the Resolute Desk, their words carry more weight, and we trust them more.   

This is why over the next year President Obama should speak from the Oval Office to get the support he needs to advance legislation that will end the debates on immigration reform and gun control, and offer the nation direction on energy independence, education and job growth. The President can reach millions of Americans in primetime instead of speaking from the Press Room when Americans are at work or heading home to pick up their children.  More importantly, he can rally Americans to push Congress to move our nation forward. His addresses from the Oval Office directly to the American people will not be diluted by the press. It provides the opportunity for a man recognized for being calm, cool, and steady to provide assurances that the nation is moving in the right direction and that together we can get there faster.  Mr. President, we are waiting.….