Some presidents, like George Bush, necessarily make war the focus of their State of the Union speech. As such, Bush would invite soldiers to watch the speech with members of Congress and would recognize them during the speech. Other presidents, like Reagan (who invented the inviting of outsiders tradition), would focus on taxes. Reagan liked to invite “ordinary citizens” to the State of the Union.
What was striking about Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was just how much he talked about small business, and his shout-outs were to the small business owners he had invited to sit amongst the Republicans and Democrats who were (shocking!) sitting amongst each other for once. It was almost like, instead of being a law professor and legislator before becoming president, Obama had been an entrepreneur.
It’s actually not surprising that small business was much of the focus of the president’s speech. The Great Recession is not too distant in our collective rear-view mirror, unemployment is still too high, and the president’s controversial stimulus bill was intended to create jobs via small business contracting. So yes, the state of small business is very closely tied in with President Obama’s ability to get re-elected.
The more successful we are, the more successful he will be.
For instance, while noting that both the stock market and corporate profits are up, the president said that these sorts of economic measures are insufficient yardsticks for measuring our success as a country. “We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise.”
Similarly, when discussing extending broadband to 98 percent of America, the president explained that the purpose of doing so was not so we would have “fewer dropped calls” (though that would be nice, thank you very much), but because it would connect “every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.”
Of course, the president also discussed health care reform in the speech because, he said, he had “heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new law.” Obama defended the law by, again, noting its effect on small business. In fact, the president had invited an auto shop owner from my own Portland, Oregon, to prove his point: “I’m not willing to tell Jim Houser, a small business owner from Oregon, that he has to go back to paying $5,000 more to cover his employees.”
Probably the most inspiring part of the speech also had a strong small business component.
“[The American] dream is the story of a small business owner named Brandon Fisher. Brandon started a company in Berlin, Pennsylvania that specializes in a new kind of drilling technology. One day last summer, he saw the news that halfway across the world, 33 men were trapped in a Chilean mine, and no one knew how to save them. But Brandon thought his company could help.
“And so he designed a rescue that would come to be known as Plan B. His employees worked around the clock to manufacture the necessary drilling equipment. And Brandon left for Chile. Along with others, he began drilling a 2,000 foot hole into the ground, working three or four days at a time with no sleep.
“Thirty-seven days later, Plan B succeeded, and the miners were rescued.”
It is an incredible story, and all the more salient because it was an American small business that innovated, worked hard, sacrificed, and made the rescue possible.
Indeed, innovation seemed to be the right theme for the night given the fragile state of the recovery, the quick rise of China, and the history of our country. Indeed, it has been innovation that has played a critical role in allowing America to thrive up to now.
But while the president's pro-small-business, pro-innovation words should be encouraging for small business owners and entrepreneurs, they are still just that: words. Now, business owners want -- and need -- action. Limited access to credit, debilitating taxes, and still-shaky consumer confidence are just some of the hurdles that many entrepreneurs still face today. So, thank you, Mr. President, for shining the spotlight on the millions of small business enterprises that are the foundation of our economy. But now for the most important part: turning all those skillfully crafted words into meaningful action.
Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker