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5 Miami Takeaways from The State of The Union

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We hosted a watch party for President Obama’s State of the Union address last night at Elwood’s Gastro Pub downtown. We got a chance to talk with you about topics in the speech and find out how these national initiatives might affect Miamians. Here were some takeaways from the crowd and from local social media.

On income equality and economic opportunity

As expected (from every politician ever), Obama focused on the middle class economy—but also on income inequality, paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage. “We’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” he said while introducing an initiative to help states adopt paid leave measures. “To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it.”

“He said it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, latino, black, yellow, it really doesn’t matter; we need to be united regardless,” said Wendy Corts. Miami has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country. And while the local economy’s growing in a way not seen since years before the recession, that growth hasn’t produced strong results for everyone: Miami has persistently high unemployment, even among college-educated workers. As we recently heard from Miami-Dade Chief Economist Robert Cruz, there are some long-term challenges preventing Miami’s new growth from benefiting a greater share of residents.

On foreign policy and relations with Cuba

  With changes to Cuba relations, attacks in France, negotiations with Iran and ISIS still in action, both military and diplomatic issues were on the table yesterday. The president’s push to normalize relations with Cuba drew the most response from our gathering. “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” Obama said, while asking Congress to begin ending the embargo. “The Cuban community has been divided since my generation got over here [in 1995]. The Castros blamed everything on the embargo,” said Adrian Cardenas, as the watch party. “I think more information and more access is always better.”

“I’m very happy that we’re trying to approach it responsibly. It’s a huge opportunity to start breaking down that barrier and finding that open dialogue,” Mikhaile Solomon told us after the speech.

Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t as optimistic as some locals. “Lifting the embargo would be a betrayal to more than 11 million Cubans who live under a tyrannical communist regime. The administration has offered concessions to the Castro brothers receiving little to nothing in return. Cuba has murdered American citizens, harbored fugitives and aided terror organizations. By negotiating with an avowed enemy, the President jeopardizes our national security,” she said in a statement.

On bipartisanship and working with Congress

With a new Republican majority in the Senate and a stronger majority in the House, the president came out fighting, addressing representatives directly and calling for ambitious policies from income equality to environmental reform. The response was positive at our party and on social media, even among conservatives. People liked the candor—especially the president’s most popular (and unplanned) line: “I have no more campaigns to run,” he said. “I know because I won both of them.”

“He certainly ended with a bipartisan tone, and I think it’s appreciated throughout the whole country,” said Justin Wales at the watch party. “Hopefully he can capitalize on the message and push some legislation forward in his last two years.”

We certainly know a little something about political tension here in Miami.

On our rapidly encroaching oceans

Miami’s one of the most at-risk population centers in the world for sea level rise, and has the greatest dollar amount of capital (in infrastructure, buildings, and so on) at risk.

“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act,” Obama said. (Florida Governor Rick Scott and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, by the way, are both repeat members of that group) “Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans.”

Notably, the president didn’t ask Congress for action on sea level rise or global warming, instead saying he would “not let Congress turn back the clock” on his administration’s efforts. Locally, a task force created by county commissioners recently recommended a number of new measures, most of which are loose plans for the future without specific actions or a price tag. Still, we expect more to come on this issue from the mayor’s office and the commission this year.

On access to education

Obama announced he would send Congress “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college—to zero.” The plan, which the president announced for the first time on January 8, would have the federal government cover 3/4 of the average cost of community college tuition for students maintaining a 2.5 or higher GPA, with participating states funding the remaining quarter. The proposal has ample numbers of supporters and critics, and many analysts think it won’t find much support in Congress.

“His proposal on community colleges was the most important” part, said local Gonzalo Vizcardo at the watch party. “I didn’t go to community college myself but I know that here in Florida,  over the late 2000s and early 2010s, we saw 15% tuition hikes, which compounded yearly, are huge. So having free community college would go a long way to reducing tuition burdens.”

Educational attainment and higher education access are major issues for Miami, which has a higher percentage of adults with high school-only education, 30%, than any other major American city,according to Miami Foundation’s Our Miami report.

Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami-Dade College, said “I hope that Congress gives it serious consideration. I am confident this initiative will make a tremendous difference in college completion and further improve our nation’s economy by creating a skilled workforce for new jobs. The cost of college should not be barrier to college completion when desire and good performance exist.” He noted that MDC already gives out full-tuition scholarships to some students, but would like to give more.

By rebekah monson
Rebekah Monson is the co-founder of WhereBy.Us, and she oversees technology and editorial strategy.