“I am feeling so disempowered,” the woman prefaced her question to me at a “Passion to Action” conference in Grass Vally, CA, sponsored by the See Jane Do organization. But her face telegraphed very powerful emotions: anger, frustration, fear. It was a look we’ve seen on the faces of teabaggers as they shouted wild allegations and disrupted town halls across the nation.
This woman was no teabagger. She was a progressive Democratic woman, a key member of Obama’s base. The impassioned ones who swept him into office on a frothy wave of belief in the change he promised; the ones now feeling somewhere between skeptical and cynical.
“I want real health reform. What happened to that and what can I do about it?” The questioner lobbed this at me after my speech encouraging women to use our power as activists. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then it would be very important to listen to what women like her had to say about Obama’s State of the Union address.
So I went to the discussion boards, the White House Facebook page, Twitter, and posted a query on my own Facebook page to see what my friends were saying about his speech. The focus on jobs and the economy was clearly the top priority for most people and rightly so. Capping government spending, being transparent about who’s getting the pork, becoming a global leader in solar energy, and a tax break for small businesses all got shout outs for being ideas that people appreciated. He apologized elegantly without showing weakness. He said bipartisan twice, enough to keep the centrists and pundits singing his praises, but he also challenged the Republicans to go beyond “no” and help him govern. These were not new initiatives, but we needed to hear them again to know he has not lost his way through the forest of governing.
It was remarkable how, in the absence of bold new goals, even small steps were glommed onto as being big enough. This tells me Obama continues to hold onto a reservoir of goodwill from Americans who truly want their president to be successful.
The folks over at RHRealityCheck were holding a liveblog that included a virtual drinking party. You were supposed to have a drink when certain predictable words or words they wanted to hear were mentioned. Amanda Marcotte said that if abortion were mentioned, she’d guzzle. No worries about Amanda overimbibing tonight.
One woman noted via e-mail that he had used the female gendered pronoun when talking about the need to stimulate small businesses and increase job creation and she appreciated that. I’d noticed it too but it was too small a gesture for me to celebrate.
Another woman posted in response to my Facebook question that his commitment to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was big to her, and it is—but didn’t he promise the same thing last year? And still there isn’t a concrete plan or timetable.
In the missed opportunity column, Obama might have seconded the initiative of Senator Chris Dodd (D-Ct) earlier in the day that he will soon schedule a hearing on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a top priority for many women’s groups such as the American Association of University Women.
In fact, Obama mentioned equal pay only in a rhetorical flourish, saying, “We are going to crack down on violations of equal pay laws—so that women get equal pay for an equal day’s work.” His other mention of women’s rights was a pledge to support women who march in the streets in Iran and girls trying to go to school in Afghanistan. No concrete promise, such as the U.S. joining the 180 other nations that have ratified CEDAW, and he seems to have completely forgotten his campaign pledge to place the Freedom of Choice Act to codify reproductive rights for women high on his agenda.
Like Goldilocks, he’s not interested in things too big or too small, but perhaps that’s just right for most of the country right now.
The president needed to achieve two things with this speech. First to reclaim his leadership mantle with the general public of voters. The polls show he did that at least for the short term, with 83 percent of those questioned saying they approved of the speech. Seventy percent said after the speech they have the same priorities as the president compared to 57 percent before it. Second, while broadening his message sufficiently for independents, he needed to offer at least one big idea to elevate the spirits of the many people in his base who feel “disempowered” now. That could have come with his focus on jobs. But it didn’t rise to Papa Bear size, not because it isn’t critically important but because details of the initiative were so sketchy.
Obama is still that same inscrutable man for all seasons, a blank tablet upon which many of us see our own stories written. He said he still wants a health care bill to be passed, and if anyone can tell him a good idea about how to solve the nation’s health care crisis, he wants to hear it. This answer was significantly better than abandoning the issue—a real concern by many going into the speech—but I don’t think it’s going to assuage my activist questioner, and others like her.
Obama would have better served his own agenda by staking out at least one clear line in the sand. But overall, his pitch was just right to allow his presidency to live to fight another day and the porridge of hope continues to nourish the American dream.
GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.