Send Arne Duncan to Mars!: A State of the Union wish list for liberals

We asked left-of-center groups what they hope to hear in the president's speech tonight. Here are the best replies

Published January 28, 2014 6:32PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Obama’s address tonight will be closely watched by advocates on a wide range of issues, including some progressives who’ve been less than satisfied with the ways Obama has wielded presidential authority – or chosen not to.

Salon emailed the leaders of a range of left-of-center groups to ask what they hope to hear in tonight’s speech. Their answers -- some more likely than others – appear below. (On Tuesday morning, the White House announced its intention to address one of those demands: raising wages for federally-contracted workers.)

Defund the lockup quota: “In the State of the Union President Obama should take a stand against the lockup quota that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement to imprison at minimum 34,000 immigrants at any given time. The president should remove the quota from the White House budget and also urge Congress to eliminate it in the appropriations bill. To reaffirm his support for immigration reform, he should announce the suspension of all deportations, and closure of the most egregious immigration jails to ensure the safety, dignity and well being of immigrants subject to detention.” – Silky Shah, interim executive director, Detention Watch Network

Hike contracting standards: "Rather than just talking a big game about economic inequality during the State of the Union, progressives expect the president to act by announcing his intention to sign an executive order that would give preferential treatment to federal contractors who pay employees more, giving a de facto minimum wage increase to up to 2 million low-wage workers. By announcing this concrete action, the president could make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families struggling with low-paying jobs and show the rest of the country that Democrats' focus on economic inequality is more than election year rhetoric."  -- Jim Dean, chairman, Democracy for America

Push public financing: “Here are three things I hope he'll say to show he is taking the crisis of inequality seriously: … The president should set his sights high and call for a substantial increase in the minimum wage. The least he can do is to issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hr. for all federal contractors …

“President Obama should address the millions of students whose opportunities are shackled by student debt, which now tops $1.2 trillion. There are bold solutions worthy of support, like Sen. Merkley's bill to support innovative state-based policies like the "Pay It Forward" model approved in Oregon; Sen. Gillibrand's proposal to allow students to refinance their loans at lower interest rates; and Sen. Warren's bill to allow students to borrow at the same low rate as banks.

… the Citizens United decision has given wealthy interests a megaphone so big it drowns out the rest of our voices. President Obama should put the voters back in charge by announcing a plan for public financing of federal elections, to allow every voice to be heard.” – Valerie Ervin, executive director, Center for Working Families

Honor treaties: “The president has a myriad of opportunities to help everyday Americans through executive action. He can promote shared prosperity by redoubling his efforts to create jobs and educational opportunities for people hurt by the recession, the housing crisis and the big banks. All workers deserve a fair shot, so they can bring home a paycheck to support themselves and their families. The president can and should commit to nominating diverse, thoughtful and qualified judicial and executive branch nominees. The president should also commit to once again ensuring that the United States can be a global role model for human rights by following through on our human rights treaties and working with the Senate to pass the [Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] and [Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women].” – Wade Henderson, president, the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights

Offer a road map away from fossil fuels: "During a historic speech last June, President Obama made the case for climate action. Now, it’s time for him to follow through. There is no greater disaster on America's horizon than the devastation climate disruption will inflict, and no greater opportunity than to launch the era of clean energy prosperity. This State of the Union, the president should take that case to Congress and the American people by laying out a road map for rejecting fossil fuels, holding polluters accountable, and going all in on clean energy and the jobs and economic growth it will create nationwide."  -- Michael Brune, executive director, Sierra Club

Curb the NSA: "I hope that the president will simply praise the House (GOP) for developing principles on immigration reform. The less he says, the better, because they don’t take their lead from him.

"As head of the nation that has the highest per capita incarceration rates of any Western nation, I hope that he talks about mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs and takes some executive action in the area of federal prison overcrowding. The federal prison population is growing because of federal mandatory minimum laws while state prison populations are declining.

"I hope that he vows to work with Congress to change the law with regard to the NSA bulk collection, and makes a spirited defense of civil liberties even as he attempts to keep our nation safe (as he did in his speech at DOJ).  It would be important for his legacy for him to distinguish himself from the Big Brother policies of the Bush administration and to rein in the surveillance state." -- Laura Murphy, director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Tout unions: "The most effective way to do something about inequality is to empower workers to bargain for better pay and secure benefits. With unions under assault from deep-pocketed, anti-worker forces across the nation, the president can use his State of the Union pulpit to remind Congress, and the rest of the country, that collective bargaining rights and a strong labor movement help level the playing field and are meaningful solutions to the problem of inequality.” -- Lee Saunders, president, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

Call out Republicans: “We hope President Obama won't mince words in connecting the dots and holding Tea Party Republicans accountable for the damage they've done to our economy, including their decision to force a government shutdown and reckless spending cuts over the past year. MoveOn members hope President Obama will use the State of the Union to voice strong support for an increase in the minimum wage, for extended emergency unemployment insurance, for an expansion of Medicaid in states where Republicans stand in the way, and for other policies that level the economic playing field so everyone has a fair shot to succeed. We also want to hear his plans to fight climate change, protect voting rights and confront the scourge of big money in politics." – Anna Galland, executive director, Civic Action

Question punishing drug use: “The key thing that the president needs to do is articulate a vision of a future in which America is no longer 'exceptional' in its rates of incarceration but merely average …  As for drug policy specifically, the most important thing he could do would be to question the need to take away anyone’s freedom simply for possessing or using a drug.  Yes, punish people for hurting other people; punish people for driving under the influence and putting others at serious risk, but question why the government should deprive anyone of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply for putting a drug into their body.

“The other thing that would be good is if he would acknowledge that accidental overdose (from heroin and pharmaceutical opiates) now rivals auto accidents as the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the country.  There’s lots of things that one can do about that but two of the most important are making sure that people don’t fear to call 911 when they witness an OD and making the antidote to an OD – naloxone – as widely available as possible. And, more realistically, since all of the above may just be too much for any president to say right now, he should simply commit to reduce incarceration in America as much as possible while protecting public safety.” -- Ethan Nadelmann, executive director, Drug Policy Alliance

Send Arne Duncan to Mars: “President Obama should start by apologizing for the recent comments of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that parents who oppose the harsh overtesting regime that has afflicted our schools are just upset that their children aren’t smart enough. He will say he is withdrawing all federal support for the Common Core standards, exams and curriculum until they have been reassessed in a transparent manner by an independent task force of teachers, parents, early childhood experts and special education professionals, with full public input, as opposed to the secretive and incestuous way the standards were developed.

“At the same time, he will eliminate any federal mandates to require high-stakes testing or invalid teacher evaluation systems linked to test scores, and cancel all funding for programs targeted at closing public schools or turning them over to private corporate hands.  He will pledge that the FERPA regulations be immediately revised to protect privacy once again, rather than the way they have been rewritten by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage the tracking and sharing of personal student data without parental consent. He will announce the resumption of manned space flight, starting with a trip to Mars by Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, where they will try out their education experiments on any inhabitants they find there. The president will conclude by announcing that during Duncan’s absence, Diane Ravitch will serve as secretary of education.” --  Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters

By Josh Eidelson

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