State of the Union 2016: Obama Emphasizes Innovation, Tech's Role in Government

In his final address, Obama asked how to make technology work for us, not against us – especially when solving urgent challenges.

by / January 12, 2016

On Jan. 12, President Barack Obama gave his final State of the Union address to the nation -- a fact advertised on the White House State of the Union website, which parallels the tone of the speech itself.  Though the president is on his way out, it's not about him -- it's about what he did and what America needs to do for the future.

"For my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to talk just about the next year," Obama said. "I want to focus on the next five years, 10 years and beyond."

Climate change, education and technology were among the key issues covered in his speech, with a particular emphasis on the role that technology will play in many areas of government.

"How do we make technology work for us, and not against us – especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?" Obama asked.

The president also questioned how we can reignite that spirit of innovation to meet our biggest challenges. "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," he said. "We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon."

That spirit of discovery, he continued, is in our DNA. "We’re Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. We’re Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world. And over the past seven years, we’ve nurtured that spirit."

Technology will help the nation and the world fight climate change, Obama said, noting that anyone who still disputes that people are making the climate hotter can't ignore an opportunity for the nation to sell energy to the rest of the world. He went on to cite the energy advancements the country has made during his administration.

"In fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power," he said. "On rooftops from Arizona to New York, solar is saving Americans tens of millions of dollars a year on their energy bills, and employs more Americans than coal – in jobs that pay better than average. We’re taking steps to give homeowners the freedom to generate and store their own energy – something environmentalists and Tea Partiers have teamed up to support. Meanwhile, we’ve cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 percent, and cut carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth. Gas under two bucks a gallon ain’t bad, either."

Obama called for investment in clean energy -- and a stop to subsidizing "dirty" energy.

"That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet," he said. "That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system."

Outside the tech realm, Obama supported Vice President Joe Biden's pet project to cure cancer and announced a new effort to meet that goal.

"Because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control," he said. "For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."

Whether the goal of completely eradicating cancer is reached or not, the medical community will gain increased support in the past century's medical progress. According to the American Cancer Society, the U.S. saw a 20 percent decline in cancer death rates between 1991 and 2009 alone, saving 1.2 million lives.

And when speaking to education in the U.S., Obama referenced the recent changes to the No Child Left Behind initiative, citing them as a good starting point for broader social changes that create greater equality, though many pundits cited those changes as chiefly nominal, despite their good intent.

One of the most controversial topics broached was the president's $60 billion plan to provide free community college to qualifying Americans. The program has been heavily criticized from both political parties, but the president said he plans to keep fighting. With just a year left in office, his administration will need to work quickly if they're to shift the program's popularity.

The president ended his speech with a plan for defeating terrorism, protecting the country, and a call for civic participation in the democratic process.

"We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now," he said, adding that over the course of this year, he will travel the country to push for reforms that do just that. "But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process – in not just who gets elected but how they get elected – that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by and for the people."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.