Federal employees have to read between the lines to see where they fit in the State of the Union address.
President Barack Obama didn’t follow many of his previous speeches where he called for major changes to federal management. Instead, the President focused on broad issues such as infrastructure and education that will have a strong trickle down effect into many agencies.
Obama did highlight two specific areas where federal employees would be impacted directly.
The first was around cybersecurity — a common theme among almost all of Obama’s annual speeches to Congress.
Without a doubt, cybersecurity has been a growing concern for the administration, and now Congress has started to see the light with the spate of hacks and identity thefts in the private sector. The White House believes there is momentum to update and improve upon current laws.
“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids. So we’re making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism,” Obama said Tuesday night. “And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. That should be a bipartisan effort. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities.”
The White House on Jan. 13 submitted new proposals to Congress around cyber legislation. The proposals centered on updating the Homeland Security Department’s authorities, a standard approach to data breach notification and improved law enforcement authorities as they relate to cyber crime.
The second area that ties directly to federal employees was related to cybersecurity, but was more broadly around intelligence activities.
Obama said because of the way the nation looks at our civil liberties, the government must uphold that commitment in the fight against terrorist networks.
“As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse,” he said. “And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”
Obama also referenced the continued fight against terrorism several times throughout his speech. He said all but 15,000 military troops are gone from Afghanistan and Iraq. He asked Congress to pass a resolution to use force to fight the Islamic State. Both of which directly impact the Defense Department.
Trickle down effect to feds
The President also specifically called out the scientists at NASA and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for their work around climate change and showing how weather patterns have changed over the last decade.
Obama also addressed the troubles at the Veterans Affairs Department, though not directly.
He said the government is “slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need. And we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs.”
Beyond those direct references to initiatives or proposals that called out federal employees, there were several references to other efforts where agencies weren’t highlighted but will play a huge role.
The first one was around improving the nation’s infrastructure.
Obama said for America’s businesses to compete, they need an infrastructure that supports them.
“Twenty-first century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, and stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest Internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come. Let’s do it. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it done,” he said. “Twenty-first century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are also fair. It’s the right thing to do.”
Plans around infrastructure, open Internet and trade promotion center on larger roles for departments such as Transportation and Commerce, as well as the State and possibly the Small Business Administration, to play in order to achieve the President’s goals.
A second major theme was education and how America has fallen behind in how it values preparing students for the evolving nature of business and jobs.
Continued focus on health IT initiatives
Obama called for a new approach that would give the Education Department as well as the Veterans Affairs Department some heavy lifting.
“[I]n a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game. We need to do more. By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education — two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future. That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero,” he said. “Keep in mind 40 percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.”
A third area Obama highlighted that would rely on feds is around health IT. It’s been a popular topic in State of the Union’s for more than a decade when then President George W. Bush in 2004 called for every American to have an electronic health record by 2014. While progress on that goal is slow, both Presidents Bush and Obama have pushed the ball forward.
Obama said his administration is launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring the country closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to give citizens access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.
Both of these initiatives will depend on the Department of Health and Human Services to play a larger role than it’s already playing in health IT, and, of course, learn from the experience VA and the Defense Department are in the middle of in trying to create a full interoperable health IT system.