Politics of Poverty

Restoring humanity for a more perfect union

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President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union speech tonight in the House chambers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Wishing the President a meaningful State of the Union speech tonight.

The President’s State of the Union speech before Congress is always an intense moment of political – even historical – import.  Each year, the President stands in front of his cabinet and an often hostile Congress; but he also stands in front of the entire country, some may say the world, from that podium.

Speculation around the content of the speech and efforts to influence the President’s agenda is rich material for Washington’s pundits and lobbyists.  But sometimes, the President is able to transcend the politics of the moment and speak to deeper issues and human values.

Tonight is President Obama’s final State of the Union.   With one year left in his presidency and the race already underway for who will succeed him, there is no doubt that his legacy is at the forefront of his mind.

So, as the President takes center stage tonight – with the clock diligently ticking on his time in office – there are a few issues he must address. First, and foremost: Syria. The Syrian war represents Obama’s own “problem from hell.” As we approach the 5th year of the conflict it’s hard to imagine how things could be worse – the humanitarian horror that continues to unfold has left no Syrian untouched. Air strikes and military escalation have only added to the seemingly unending list of tragedies and after haunting photos and stories of starving children showed up on international news sites and social media, food was finally allowed into some besieged towns in Syria. These images give fresh urgency to peace talks scheduled later this month but unless there is political will from all parties to the conflict as well as the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Europe, the talks will once again fail.

In his final State of the Union, President Obama should lay out a political and diplomatic strategy in order to end the war and build on his legacy.

The chaos inside Syria has spread like lava to surrounding countries and into the Mediterranean where thousands of refugees have drowned seeking safety and a new life.  Syria’s neighbors are hosting over 4 million Syrians refugees but the strain and stress on their limited resources is becoming overwhelming and the rest of the world, including the US, must step up to do more.  While millions of Syrians are making the treacherous trip to Europe to seek help, the United States has done very little to date, only taking in around 2,000 refugees.  The US can and should do a lot more.  President Obama has committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the fiscal year, and Congress should support him instead of weakening US commitments to taking in those in need.

The US’s poor performance thus far on Syrian resettlement is in many ways a result of the fear some politicians are stoking about the refugees. President Obama can and should do more to combat the hateful rhetoric and uphold policies that are both welcoming to the Syrian families who have suffered so much, but also keep Americans safe.  It is expected that the Syrian doctor recently profiled by Humans of New York and resettled to Detroit will be an official guest at the State of the Union tonight to help put a human face to the very people who are fleeing the war.

We are also seeing conflicts simmer in Yemen, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Burundi where too often it seems like the basic norms of humanity in war, do not exist. In Yemen, a country suffering from a crisis on the same scale as the one in Syria but lacking international profile, the US is calling for peace while at the same time selling arms to one side of the conflict. President Obama should outline how the US is going to help bring this conflict urgently to an end.

Lastly, another wave of humanity is on the move fleeing violence.  This one, is coming to the US from the south.  Frightened parents can see no other option but to send their children north – often by themselves– out of desperation to escape the violence in El Salvador, Honduras and other parts of Central America.  This nation of immigrants must work to accommodate this wave of potentially vulnerable people humanely and reasonably, even while we work to reduce the violence and poverty that are pushing them here. The Obama Administration recently started raids to deport families, an effort which is absolutely shameful. If people are fleeing for their lives, we shouldn’t send them back, we should protect them. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the practice the US government preaches during displacement crises worldwide.

Tonight’s speech presents an important opportunity for the President to stand up for the world’s most vulnerable – let’s hope he takes it.

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