Americans respond to State of the Union:What about jobs?

George W. Bush delivered the 2004 State of the Union speech to Congress and the American people on Jan. 20, and afterwards many people asked: What Union and world was he talking about?

Giving the nation a preview of his re-election campaign themes, Bush spent the first half of his hour-long speech trumpeting his unsavory foreign policy, the so-called war on terror and on Iraq. In the remaining time he cheered his floundering domestic agenda – tax cuts for the rich, keeping private profits in health care, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, education, privatizing Social Security, and pushing hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and faith-based initiatives. Trying to sound commanding, Bush came off to many as mean-spirited, arrogant, and hypocritical.

The World interviewed four leaders from Georgia, California, Washington, D.C., and Minnesota to get their reaction to the State of the Union.

Over 3 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office, and 226,000 jobs per month have to be created just to make a dent in the job loss. December’s employment report stated that only 1,000 new jobs were created.

“The only jobs added by [Bush’s] tax cuts have been for accountants,” Georgia AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Charlie Key told the World. “Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.) said it well: Bush is living in a different world than average, everyday working people.”

“The assault on overtime pay by the administration opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Key said. The Labor Department sent out a memo to employers giving tips on how to stiff employees on their overtime pay. “They might as well merge the Commerce Department with the Labor Department,” he said.

Key said his wife, a lifelong union member, couldn’t believe it when the president called for “free trade unions” in Iraq. “The only free trade unions Bush believes in are the ones that can’t charge dues,” he said.

Key also criticized the president’s insincere support for the troops in Iraq. “Half our membership supports the war, half didn’t support the war, but everyone supports the troops,” Key said. “They are working men and women, too. They have been treated absolutely despicable. The president didn’t say anything about taking care of them when they get home.”

Noticeably missing from the president’s address were the words veterans, poverty, unemployment, racism, peace, environment, Osama bin Laden, Mars and state budget crises.

In 2003, states faced their worst budget deficits since World War II. The people of California, a state facing a $26 billion deficit, are facing severe cuts to education and social services.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who represents Orange County in Southern California, said there is a “structural” failure to the Bush economic plan, which projects a huge deficit for the next 10 years.

Sanchez said states and local communities are stretched too thin trying to keep emergency services, firefighters, and police functioning. “The administration is not even giving money to Homeland Security and first-responders,” she said.

Sanchez supports steps to strengthen national security but said, “Homeland Security resources should flow to stopping those who want to hurt us – not stopping workers picking fruit or cutting lawns – they don’t want to hurt us.”

Sanchez was critical of the administration’s immigration plan because it did not give any path to permanent residency or citizenship to those 8-10 million people already in the country.

“Bush didn’t go into how this country is going to absorb the 10,000 wounded soldiers at a time when he is cutting veteran’s benefits. That was a big omission,” she said.

The gap between word and deed was a theme for Rev. Graylan Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice and senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in northeast D.C.

Hagler spearheaded a religious response to Bush’s State of the Union speech by organizing 50 congregations in Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Colorado and California to come together in their houses of worship and “examine [it] theologically and morally.”

Hagler said Muslim, Jewish and Christian people of faith came together at Plymouth. “We all felt that his speech seriously missed the scriptural imperative for justice. Scriptures tells us that war is evil and not an adequate response to violence.”

Bush helps “the wealthiest of those and not the least of those,” Hagler said. “Faith doesn’t mean what we say, it means what we do. This administration has not been about the empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised.”

Bush’s marriage and faith-based initiatives only serve to promote division, Hagler said. “Tax dollars flow to those religious institutions that are homophobic, or promote racial and sexual bias,” he said.

The agenda Bush laid out in his State of the Union speech went over like a “lead balloon,” said Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Communication Director Diane O’Brien. “It was neither truthful nor sincere. This administration has a massive disrespect for the people who do the work in this country,” she said.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.