If Obama Were a 20-Something, Here's What His State of the Union Would Say

ByAnne Johnson

When President Obama and I sat down for lunch with a few other young Americans earlier this month, he was interested in learning how outreach efforts around his signature healthcare legislation are going and what other issues young people care about. We had a long conversation about student debt, college affordability, and the best ways to ensure that every American has access to the middle class.

As the conversation transitioned, I decided to ask the president what he planned to talk about in his State of the Union address. He was mum on the specifics of his speech — based on Instagram, he’s still putting last-minute touches on the text — but he did give some hints, like that he will exercise his executive power through the use of both the “phone and the pen.”

I couldn’t agree more; we need action, and we need to start making our political system work again.

It was an amazing conversation — really, a once-in-a-lifetime experience — and it got me thinking, what would I say if I could give a State of the Millennials’ Union speech?

Well, here’s where I’d start:

Young Americans saw a lot of progress on important issues in 2013.

Thanks to thousands of young people and their families speaking up, we were able to pass the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act. The legislation saved 11 million students an estimated $15 billion by lowering interest rates and providing much needed stability to families across the country. In a tough and divisive political climate, this was a huge victory for students who need affordable options to get a degree. It proves that when we come together as a community and a country, we can make positive change for millions of Americans.

We also saw how the Affordable Care Act is helping millions of young Americans, giving us added protections and access to affordable, quality healthcare. Young adults now stay on their parents' healthcare plans until they turn 26 — more than 3 million have done so already. What’s more, the majority of single, uninsured young people can now find coverage for less than $100 per month. And pre-existing conditions, which once limited access to healthcare, no longer mean you’ll be denied coverage; and lifetime limits — gone. Real change in real people’s lives.

I believe politics is about the improvement of people’s lives. Politics isn’t a game, it’s not a horse race between candidates, and it’s not the right against the left, or Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s about our country and who we are as a nation, what we aspire to and what we can accomplish. Our government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, unique in the world, full of potential to improve the lives of all Americans. Shouldn’t that be what we’re trying to achieve?

We can’t let ourselves be trapped in endless partisan bickering, we have too much work to do. I believe, as millennials, we are the generation that can help our country realize our potential. We are innovative, committed, aspirational, and practical. We care about each other, our families and our communities. We work hard and we respect one another. So, here are a few things we need to address in the coming years.

We know the current income gap is, as President Obama said, a “defining challenge of our time.” The idea of upward mobility is breaking down, and we all want to feel more stable and confident in our financial future, regardless of where we come from or the circumstances into which we were born. We have a responsibility to all Americans to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot to succeed.

A key first step to creating economic stability is addressing our education debt crisis. With student loan debt now more than $1.2 trillion, many borrowers are struggling to keep up with repayment. But there’s another idea that’s gaining traction, both on and off Capitol Hill: refinancing. If we lower interest rates to 5 percent, borrowers will see more manageable monthly payments, and we’ll see that extra money flow back into the economy. Sure, it’s a bold idea, but we need viable solutions like these that have a big impact in people’s lives.

It’s not just student loans we must address, but the cost and quality of higher education altogether. The cost of a degree has increased by more than 1,000 percent over the past three decades. We all have a stake in ensuring our country’s higher education and training programs are accessible to all and worth the cost. We know that a higher education is one of the surest paths to a stable, middle-class life, so working together to keep college affordable and accessible is crucial.

Everyone deserves a fair shot to succeed. But our minimum wage has not kept up with the rising cost of living in the United States. Today, a full-time worker bringing home a minimum wage paycheck will earn just $14,500 a year. So let’s do something about it. Increasing the minimum wage to $10 per hour would help create a fair economy for everyone, especially for young Americans.

And that’s not all. Millions are working across the country to create progressive change — from ensuring our gay and lesbian neighbors have the same rights as the rest of us, to preserving our planet for future generations, to pushing for much-needed reforms to our immigration system. Our generation is the most diverse and the most progressive, and you can bet that we’ll continue to work for equality and opportunity and we won’t be ignored.

It’s up to us. We have big ideas to solve today’s challenges, we need to organize and engage our generation, and we need to make our voices heard in the political process. Of the people, by the people and for the people — a promise that we as millennials can and will realize.