President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address had a decidedly domestic focus, but a few key development issues made the cut (if not explicitly framed as such). While I wish I’d heard more, to follow our catalog of what we hoped would be included in the president’s remarks, here’s a quick recap of what we did hear:
On fighting Ebola and extreme poverty
“In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola — saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn’t be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts. But the job is not yet done — and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty.”
According to estimates from the WHO and CDC, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has claimed more than 8,600 lives in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the three countries grappling with the most widespread transmission. Considerable progress has been made, but the president was right to stress the need for more work ahead. In addition to fighting the disease itself, the United States will need to find ways to assist Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in recovering from this devastating outbreak. Full economic recovery will demand a multifaceted approach with strategies targeted at health systems, households, and firms.
For the third year running President Obama used the SOTU to call for the eradication of extreme poverty (measured at $1.25 a day or less). While ending extreme poverty remains a somewhat controversial target, reaffirming this US commitment at the presidential level was an important signal ahead of this fall’s UN Summit that will launch a new sustainable development agenda.
On climate change
“And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.… The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”
President Obama didn’t mince words when it came to addressing the urgent challenge of climate change. In addition to highlighting its dangerous consequences, he used the US-China joint announcement on climate change to illustrate the importance of immediate action and international cooperation. His parting words on the subject projected optimism for reaching a global agreement at the COP in Paris this December. And the Paris climate meeting provides an important opportunity for advancing cooperation on performance-based finance to reduce deforestation.
“21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages.… We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”
President Obama asked Congress for trade promotion authority, which would enable his administration to negotiate key trade agreements and have bills subjected to a simple up or down vote. He also spoke about the economic benefits of trade for Americans. But his remarks referenced only the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deals, the potential effects of which remain murky for many of the world’s poorest countries.
“Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
There wasn’t any doubt President Obama would face a tough audience when it came to the subject of immigration. With many Republicans clamoring to reverse the president’s executive action deferring deportations, there was little point in calling for broad reform. Instead President Obama acknowledged the role of immigrants in the fabric of America, and left it at that, but he could have highlighted the economic benefits of labor mobility or perhaps even floated the idea of win-win partnerships to address critical skill shortages.
On international engagement
“Of course, if there’s one thing this new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.”
Let’s hope President Obama keeps this lesson in mind for the remainder of his term, particularly as he looks to cement his development legacy. On that, I’m hopeful that we’ll hear much more about his remaining priorities, especially at the major UN summit this fall.