Today it is about the State of the Jobs Market
Ever since George Washington delivered the first State of the Union in January 1790 its form and purpose have evolved.
Thomas Jefferson dispensed with the inconvenience of a speech and circulated to congressmen a written report instead; it took 112 years before President Wilson revived the spoken word version in 1913. Twelve years later, President Coolidge was the first to be broadcast on radio, and President Truman the first on television in 1947.
President Lincoln used a State of Union address to speak of his plans to end slavery. FDR outlined the four freedoms: of speech and worship; and from want and fear.
In more contemporary times, President Clinton spoke of ending big government and the second President Bush controversially warned of an ‘axis of evil’ in the war on terror. These are big, memorable speeches.
Like his predecessors, when newly re-elected President Obama is driven the short distance from his White House to the Capitol later this morning Australian time, he will satisfy his constitutional duty to “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”.
Already his advisers have told the world’s media that he intends to focus this year’s speech on the economy and, more specifically, jobs. And though every word will be held up to the light, picked apart and analysed, and there will be talk of gun control and national security as well, his team will ensure the overwhelming message that comes out the other end is about jobs.
There is no perfect equivalent to this substantive political theatre in the Australian political calendar. Yet Obama’s message will be near-identical to Prime Minister Gillard’s message here at home.
While Australia and the United States began the global recession with similar unemployment rates around 5 percent, the American rate doubled while the world’s most effective stimulus combined with other advantages saw Australian unemployment tick up only slightly during the darkest days.
But despite these differences, job security is the defining anxiety of both countries. President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard understand that this was true even before the GFC hit, but the international economic carnage of recent years has seen this concern amplified and magnified.
Just as this anxiety is a common feature of both countries, so too is the approach taken by the far right in the US and Australia. Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party and the Republican Tea Party have a lot in common when it comes to prioritising radical spending cuts despite the likely consequences for jobs.
In recent months the Australian economic battlelines have been radically redrawn to reflect this choice between jobs and budget cuts.
When big write-downs in revenue forced the abandonment of the Government’s surplus pledge, they ‘made no apology for putting jobs and growth first’. The same sentiment is appearing in the White House’s pre-State of the Union communications.
The radical right represented in the United States by the Tea Party, or in Australia by Tony Abbott or by Queensland’s Campbell Newman, remain on the cuts side of the jobs-versus-cuts fence.
This was a point well-made by Canberra press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes in last weekend’s papers when he described the battle between ‘jobs and growth and the sledgehammer’.
Now that Gillard is no longer tied to the surplus forecast, and now that Obama has found a bit more political space to pursue a more progressive agenda, jobs will remain the focus of both leaders.
The upcoming jobs and innovation statement the Prime Minister releases with Minister Greg Combet will give the communications strategy substantial policy ballast.
Labor’s task in prosecuting a jobs argument will be made easier by the radical spending cut prescriptions of opponents who remain determined to fill a deepening revenue hole despite the employment consequences; by the Queensland parallels under Premier Newman; and by the lingering suspicion that the Liberals will resurrect aspects of Workchoices under another name.
So prepare for multiple references to jobs in today’s State of the Union, which sound a bit like the hundreds of references from Gillard and Wayne Swan in the Australian Parliament this week, as the jobs versus cuts debate continues right up until our 14 September election and beyond, on both sides of the Pacific.
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