Reform Movement Reacts to SOTU Address

Earlier this week, Reform Movement leaders outlined their hopes and priorities for President Obama’s State of the Union address. President Obama spoke about almost all the issues our leadership raised, including:


The majority of the President’s speech was centered on the economy and job creation. URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote that “deficit reduction cannot come on the backs of the poorest in our communities” – a sentiment that the President echoed in his speech. The President proposed raising the minimum wage, making clear that “…in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” The President also opposed big cuts in funding to education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.


President Obama echoed CCAR Executive Vice President Rabbi Steve Fox’s assertion that “immigration reform must not only improve border security and immigration law enforcement, but also provide for a just and fair path to citizenship for those now in the country without legal documentation.” We would have liked to have heard more explicit language regarding protections for workers and family unity, but appreciate the President’s previous commitment to these principles.


While the President did not make LGBT rights a center point of his speech, he made a welcome, if subtle endorsement of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act: “if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”  As we have often said, no one should be hired or fired, promoted or demoted based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, as leadership within the Defense Department changes, we appreciate his affirmation that “we will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight.”


WRJ Executive Director Rabbi Marla J. Feldman called on the President “to make clear in his address that women’s rights are not negotiable and that every individual is responsible for allowing others the same liberties, rights, and responsibilities they would claim for themselves.” The Paycheck Fairness Act and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) are key legislative priorities to our Movement and we were heartened to hear the President say: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.”


In advance of his visit to Israel next month, President Obama highlighted his steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, to the pursuit of peace, and to doing “what is necessary to prevent [Iran] from getting a nuclear weapon.” Barbara Kavadias, Acting Director of ARZA, emphasized, “Now is the time for all members of Congress to also engage constructively to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer together as honest partners” in peace negotiations.


In one of the most moving moments of his speech, President Obama drew attention to the story of Desiline Victor, a 102 year-old Florida woman who waited in line for hours to vote on election day. Rabbi Jonathan Stein, President of the CCAR, called on President Obama to address the obstacles prohibiting those like Ms. Victor from exercising their constitutional rights. To this end President Obama unveiled a new “non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” This is a welcome step forward which will hopefully help us make meaningful strides toward improving our democratic process.


Noting the onslaught of extreme weather confronting the country in recent years, President Obama demanded, “… 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.” As the Northeast continues to dig out from the Nemo storm, the effects of Superstorm Sandy continue to reverberate, and communities across the country deal with the impact of record heat, crippling drought and the devastation of tornadoes, meaningful action on climate change cannot wait. As Commission on Social Action Chair Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman said, “The intensity of the past year’s weather patterns should be enough to convince even the most doubtful of climate change skeptics.”


Evan Taylor, NFTY President, encouraged President Obama to focus on mental health – as NFTY is this year – and its relationship to gun violence prevention.  Though the President did not address the mental health component of comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation specifically, his speech culminated in a powerful refrain about the toll that gun violence has taken on our nation. After naming communities that have been victimized by gun violence such as Newtown, Chicago, and Aurora, he repeated, “They deserve a vote” and called on congress to act. Our Movement, which has long supported gun violence prevention measures, would welcome common sense legislation that deserves not just a vote, but passage and enactment. Nonetheless, as the President said, “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.”

We were disappointed that the President did not address the challenges facing the growing population of Americans with disabilities. The State of the Union provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on issues that do not always get their due consideration. But as states debate taking up the Medicaid expansion, we are reminded that Medicaid is the largest health care provider for people with disabilities. And as Members of Congress consider ways to avert the sequester, we remember that people with disabilities experience poverty rates more than twice that of the general population. As URJ Chairman Steve Sacks noted of February, which is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, “shining a presidential spotlight on these challenges and committing to addressing them is more necessary than ever and a recognition that in this nation, no one should be left behind.”