In a State of the Union speech largely devoid of any lofty legislative goals President Barack Obama did introduce one aspirational target: curing cancer. The charge will be led by Vice President Joe Biden, the president said, laying out a singular specific policy goal in a speech that he acknowledged went “easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead.”
In his State of the Union remarks, the last such address of his presidency, delivered before a deeply divided Congress, the president mostly stuck to outlining his administration’s accomplishments during his two terms ahead of a year that seems poised to have few legislative actions to add to the list. Number one in his performance review: shoring up the economy. He pointed to the country’s strong job growth in the past two years, the auto industry’s record sales last year and the falling unemployment numbers.
He also touted the U.S. and global actions that led to last month’s historic climate change agreement in Paris. That summit brought together more than 190 nations to try to hold global average temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius. “Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it,” Obama said, noting they would be “pretty lonely” because most people and “200 nations around the world” all “agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
One of the president’s most popular lines of the night dealt with how to tackle immense challenges like climate change and cancer. He likened the science and technology required to combat such massive issues to that of the 1960s space program: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later we were walking on the moon.”
On the new cancer initiative, he said, “Last year, Vice Pres. Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer… Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done.” The effort, Obama noted, has more support and resources now than it has had for a decade. The White House separately released a few details about this effort, stressing that great advances against cancer could be achieved by increasing public and private resources to fight this disease group and breaking down silos to better share information and ensure patients have access to their own medical data and clinical trials. “The goal of this initiative is simple–to double the rate of progress. To make a decade worth of advances in five years,” the White House said, in a statement.
To kick off this effort the vice president will head to the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine on Friday to get a better grasp of the latest advances in the field. Then, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week Biden plans to continue the discussion about cancer advances. Also, later this month, he plans to hold the first of several meetings across the cabinet and relevant agencies to discuss how to improve federal investment and further support cancer research and treatment.
During tonight’s State of the Union, Obama did not provide any further details about exactly what this effort would look like long-term or what benchmarks would measure success. Similarly, he mentioned having ideas about “helping students learn to write computer code” and “personalizing medical treatments for patients” but did not go into further detail about whether he was referring to existing policies—like the Precision Medicine Initiative introduced in an earlier State of the Union—or new ones he hopes to introduce in the next year. Students, he said, should have affordable college opportunities and every student should have access to “hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.”
Although Obama sought to focus his speech on his presidency rather than the current election cycle vitriol—minus, of course, some backhanded references to several of the Republican presidential candidates—the speech did directly touch on the reality of what voters should think about for the next Congress and president. Of the four questions the president said Americans should be asking themselves—including how to achieve the best economy, safety and politics of America—the remaining question was “How do we make technology work for us, and not against us—especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?”
To that end, he also called for a steady commitment to developing clean energy. “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and gas resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet,” he said. Such an effort will create jobs and create an infrastructure for the future, he said, although he acknowledged, “none of this is going to happen overnight.”
The speech comes just a week after the president rolled out new executive actions for tightening gun control laws by more strenuously enforcing existing laws and expanding federal background checks on online and gun show sales. Obama underscored his focus on this thorny topic during the speech with an empty chair in the first lady’s box representing victims of gun violence. But he only dedicated one sentence to the issue in his speech, saying we should protect “our kids from gun violence.”
A couple of other science and health-related themes were touched on during his remarks including combating the interconnected issues of prescription drug abuse and heroin use, the benefits of paid leave for new parents and advances against HIV and malaria.
The discussion about science continues tomorrow. Viewers could get questions about climate change, energy or STEM answered on Twitter using the #BigBlockofCheeseDay hashtag between 2 P.M. and 4 P.M. tomorrow. During that time, agency and cabinet leadership would make themselves available to tweet back, the White House wrote.