President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech, while short on policy proposals, focused instead on a review of his administration’s accomplishments during the last seven years.
But what was notable for some members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community listening to Obama’s words last Tuesday were those topics that the president elected not to mention.
“I agree with others who have pointed out that there was no mention of the U.S. sailors who had at that point been arrested by Iran,” said Abby Schachter, editor of the CapX American website, a news site that makes the case for popular capitalism and free markets.
“There was no mention of San Bernardino either,” continued Schachter, who has also contributed columns to The Chronicle. “Those two omissions are telling.”
First, Schachter said, those omissions demonstrate that “anything that flies in the face that a deal with Iran makes us a better steward of our values in the world is not something the president will allow into his consciousness.”
By omitting any mention of the Iranian detention of 10 American sailors, “the president shows once again his perfect record of ignoring facts that he doesn’t like. Anything that suggests that the deal with Iran was not necessary, not important, is outside of his willingness to engage.”
Obama’s failure to mention the San Bernardino shootings that took place last month was noteworthy, Schachter said, because it demonstrates that although he condemns gun violence, he is only “upset by a particular type of gun violence.”
“He will shed tears over Newtown [school shooting in 2012], but he will not shed a tear about San Bernardino [when the shooters were found to have radical Islamic ties]. His omissions are not surprising, but they are disappointing.”
While Andrea Glickman, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, was pleased that the president spoke about topics of great concern to her organization — affordable health care and child care, education and other programs that address poverty — she did note an absence in his speech on the topic of reproductive rights.
“He covered our ‘greatest hits,’” Glickman said. “He talked about many of the principles we stand for, including family leave, gun control and welcoming Muslim citizens and refugees. But I wish he had talked more about reproductive rights and the smear campaign and recent violence against Planned Parenthood. He also didn’t touch on the Hyde Amendment [which bans Medicaid coverage of abortion].”
Overall, though, Glickman was satisfied with the speech and found the empty seat honoring gun violence victims to be impactful.
“That was a pretty meaningful thing he did,” Glickman said.
For Ivan Frank, a retired high school history teacher who sometimes teaches Osher classes at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, it was significant that Obama did not dwell on the Middle East, especially Israel.
“He knows he’s not going to do much with it,” Frank said. “He already has said to the Israelis, ‘If you don’t get your act together, you won’t have a democratic Jewish state.’”
The fact that Obama did not mention Israel’s security concerns was fine with Frank as well.
“Everyone knows, who has a brain, that he’s given them [Israel] more than any other president,” Frank said. “He’s not feeding the liberals with what they want to hear about a two-state solution because he’s not going to do it. And he doesn’t have to feed the hawks, because he has already done more than anyone else.”
Frank said that he was “impressed” with most of the speech.
“I was really impressed with the way [the president] dug back at people like Trump, when he talked against the fear-mongering,” he said, adding that it resonated with him when Obama said that America would fight terrorism, without “falling back on fear.”
Frank also appreciated Obama’s remarks placing the responsibility of moving America into the future onto “we the people.”
“Now that he is finishing his second term, he can’t do it all by himself,” Frank said. “Washington can’t do it itself. So we have to pick up the ball and run with it.”
For Alec Rieger, executive director at NextGen:Pgh, the part of the speech that stood out the most was when Obama turned to the topic of immigration.
“I’m doing work with JF&CS [Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh] on this issue, and it clearly is critically important to this city and region,” Rieger said. “The Jewish community is at the forefront of refugee resettlement in this region, and it’s an issue that should be speaking to us on a personal level as Jews and also from an economic standpoint.”
Rieger noted that Pittsburgh has the lowest “foreign-born immigration rate of any peer city in the country,” and that low rate negatively affects business growth.
“There’s a lot of disagreement about refugees,” Rieger said, “but as a Jew who cares about tikkun olam and whose grandfather was a refugee, I feel a responsibility to keep America as a safe place for people who are running from the worst situations in the world.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.