Posted on January 21, 2011 in Arab American Institute

After recently delivering what many consider the best speech of his term, President Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address on a personal high note. Recovering from a year of declining public support that culminated in losses at the polls in the midterm elections, January provided Obama’s first significant approval bump in months. And for his speech tomorrow, he’s going to need it.

Despite Obama’s personal rebound and the steady recovery of many key sectors, the overall economy is still struggling. Wages continue to stagnate, home values remain low, and unemployment hovers near 10%, while costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show few signs of progress. Congress is bitterly divided, and Americans' faith in their government may be reaching an all-time low.

So, what can we expect to hear tomorrow? A look back at Obama’s past two SOTU speeches sheds some light on the President’s priorities and focus.

  1. Economic Recovery – Most analysts rightly expect the vast majority of the speech to be dedicated to jumpstarting the economy and increasing jobs. Current dissatisfaction mostly stems from impatience with a longer-than-expected downturn, with little optimism about the future. As in previous years, this State of the Union address likely will focus almost exclusively on economic concerns, including new programs geared to increasing employment, assisting small businesses, and charging the economy.
  2. Regulation/Reform – The American public continues to be angry over corporate bailouts, tax cuts for the wealthy, and other perceived preferential policies afforded to our nation’s upper class. As in last year’s speech, Obama will likely hammer big business for its excesses, promising to tax Wall Street for the benefit of Main Street.
  3. Health Care – With the Republicans regaining the majority in the House, expect Obama’s focus on health care to be a little more defensive than it would otherwise have been, probably reinforcing his 2010 calls for Republicans to assume responsibility for governance instead of stonewalling progress.
  4. Tragedy in Arizona – Condolences for the victims of the Arizona shooting are necessary and expected. It remains to be seen whether the President will extend his remarks on the attack of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her staff and her constituents to a discussion of gun-control laws. It will also be interesting to see whether attendees heed Senator Mark Udall’s call for mixed seating of both parties instead of the usual separation.
  5. Education – With a renewed focus on education reform, Obama recently called for a “New Sputnik Moment” – a commitment to increase spending for education and science to compete with new global players. Much more than in previous years, education will certainly have a significant place in the State of the Union Address. Expect calls for increased funding, new teacher guidelines, and increased student aid allocations.
  6. Iraq/Afghanistan – As in the past two SOTU addresses, foreign policy will stay on the back burner. In 2009, Obama devoted a single paragraph of his speech to Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be mention of the upcoming troop withdrawals, but don’t expect foreign affairs to take much more time than that.


In addition to the above, Arab Americans will be looking to President Obama to speak on a number of issues of particular concern to our community:

  1. Immigration/Naturalization – The failure of the DREAM Act was a bitter disappointment for many Arab Americans. Any mention or promise of new advances in immigration reform will be welcomed.
  2. Civil Liberties – Though the Obama administration has a sound record on civil rights, Arab Americans are looking for more progress on civil liberties, particularly the closing of off-site torture facilities, the end of intrusive government surveillance, and the closing of Guantanamo Bay.
  3. Democracy in the Middle East – The Obama administration’s response to the uprising in Tunisia has been viewed by many in the context of the commitments the president made in his Cairo speech. Arab Americans will be listening to hear if there is any explicit support of the street demonstrations in some parts of the Arab world in support of political and economic reforms.  
  4. Israel/Palestine – Obama has made strong commitments to the peace process in general and to the Palestinian people specifically, including an end to illegal settlement construction, more objective brokering, and a greater recognition of Palestinian needs. These promises have yet to yield much change on the ground. As we stated, we don't expect foreign policy matters to feature prominently, but it will be a disappointment and a mistake if the speech does not touch upon the need to resolve the conflict as a priority for our nation and for the people of the Middle East.


Whatever Obama decides to include, he is certain to reiterate his commitment to overcoming our adversities and moving forward as a nation. As in his previous addresses, he will likely remind us never to lose hope, to strive for change, and to rise to the challenges that face us. Considering the uphill battles he faces on almost all fronts, he’ll need all the hope he can get.

For further reading, below are the two previous State of the Union addresses by President Obama.

State of the Union – 2009

State of the Union – 2010

Dear Mr. President: Arab Americans on the State of the Union

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