The Most Glaring State of the Union Omissions

President Obama spoke on a wide range of subjects—and shouldn't have left these out.

As expected, President Obama used his State of the Union address to comment on a wide range of policy areas rather than focusing on a single agenda item or theme. So it's fair to scrutinize unmentioned subjects that ought to be priorities for him. 

What were the most glaring omissions? 

Drug reform is the one that disappointed me most. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is hugely significant, given the number of Americans who are locked in cages under prohibition, the disproportionate impact on minority families, and the tension between anti-prohibitionist states and federal law enforcement. Obama told the New Yorker's editor that state legalization experiments should go forward. But drug policy was missing from his speech.

So was the subject of mass incarceration generally, despite its relevance to a problem that was mentioned: Americans who face obstacles to joining the middle class. Prison reform is actually a subject where significant bipartisan cooperation is possible. 

While the middle class got a lot of mentions in the speech, many citizens who have no hope of joining it were all but forgotten. I am thinking, for example, of some of the homeless people I see on the streets of Los Angeles, the subset that wouldn't be helped by job training or companies willing to hire the long-term unemployed. These homeless are either mentally ill or addicted to alcohol, meth, crack, or heroin. Referring to the massacre at Sandy Hook, Obama mentioned gun control, an easy applause line. The politically viable reform that might help to avert disasters of that sort is to improve how America's mentally ill citizens are treated. 

Ocean conservation and the depletion of fish stocks is a subject I've been alarmed by lately, that I didn't expect to be mentioned, and that merits SOTU level attention. The notion of drug-resistant bacteria was mentioned in passing, but only in the context of federally sponsored research. How about legislation that stops industrial agriculture from depleting humanity's limited store of antibiotics?

Finally, there were two issues that got far less attention than they warrant: drones and NSA spying. Obama said:

America must move off a permanent war footing. That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence. That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated. 

But people abroad do believe that we strike within their countries without regard for the consequences, despite the "prudent limits" Obama imposed, because even after his speech announcing them, America blew up a wedding convoy in a strike that took place despite being inconsistent with those very limits. As for NSA spying, the breadth of Edward Snowden's revelations require far more than a sentence to address, and the debate they've provoked is one of the most important policy controversies that Congress will decide (or punt on) in coming months and years. 

Those are my complaints about what wasn't said. Got your own? Leave them in the comments. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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