WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama focused on strengthening the economic conditions of middle-class Americans during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, and the measures he announced could have a significant impact on Maryland and Marylanders.
Among the initiatives he proposed, Obama advocated for more focus on cybersecurity, high speed Internet and recommended plans to eliminate community college tuition costs for qualified students and cut taxes for the middle class.
“The verdict is clear,” a confident and upbeat Obama said in front of a Congress controlled by Republicans for the first time in his presidency. “Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”
Obama asked Congress to authorize use of force against the Islamic State and declared solidarity with France and Pakistan, which were targeted by terrorists this month.
He also called on Congress to act on climate change saying, “The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict and hunger around the globe.”
The speech was Obama’s seventh State of the Union. It was delivered in one hour in front of both houses of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Cabinet and guests of the president and members of Congress.
Three Marylanders were invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama. State Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, Majority Leader of the Maryland Senate, was recognized for her work to raise the minimum wage in Maryland. Alan Gross, of Potomac, who was released from Cuban prison last month after five years, and his wife Judy were also guests of Mrs. Obama.
Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin hosted Steve Schuh, the Republican Anne Arundel County executive. “All Marylanders benefit when we set aside partisanship and our federal, state and local officials work together. It’s why I asked County Executive Schuh to join me for President Obama’s speech tonight. He understands that our constituents must come first,” Cardin said in a statement before the speech.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D–California, welcomed as her guest Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose term ends Wednesday. Pelosi was born and raised in Maryland and O’Malley is considering running for president in 2016.
Obama spoke about the country’s need to increase efforts in cybersecurity, which could mean dividends for the Maryland economy.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
“Maryland is the epicenter of the cybersecurity industry,” said Bob Ludwig, assistant vice president for media relations at the University of Maryland, University College, whose programs for cybersecurity started in 2010 and now have enrollment of over 7,000 students.
Agencies and contractors like the National Security Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency and US Cyber Command are all located at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County.
As of September 2013, there were 100,000 jobs in cybersecurity in the greater Baltimore area and around Washington, according to Jeffrey Wells, executive director of cybersecurity development with the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. There are approximately 19,000 job openings in cybersecurity each month and Wells estimates that number to have grown recently.
“The outlook on the [cybersecurity] items look great and will have a positive impact for the state of Maryland and region because cybersecurity has been a government focus,” Wells said.
High Speed Internet
“I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” Obama said.
“There’s a very vibrant environment in Maryland” for community Internet, said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy, a Kensington firm that consults on public and private communications networking projects.
“This is like the electricity of this century,” Hovis said about high bandwidth networks. “It’s that essential.”
Obama highlighted the need for more options and more competitors. That’s where community broadband comes in, especially in rural communities that don’t have competitive options. Overall, 99.8 percent of Marylanders have access to more than one Internet service provider. But in rural counties, such as Somerset and Garrett, more than 10 percent of residents only have one option, according to National Broadband Map.
Many states have laws that prevent municipalities from creating private/public broadband providers, but Maryland doesn’t.
In Westminster, work began in October to install the Carroll County city’s Fiber Optic Network. The project will provide city residents an option for Internet connections with greater bandwidth than DSL or cable.
Maryland ranks 16th in the country with 93.3 percent of the population getting Internet speeds of 25 megabytes per second or greater, the slowest Internet speed available with Comcast and Verizon.
“I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” Obama said about his plan to provide two free years of community college to “responsible students who are willing to work for it.”
If the Republican-controlled Congress passes the plan, which seems unlikely at this point, it could have a significant impact on Maryland and its 16 community colleges, which nearly 500,000 students attend every year, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
Obama’s plan would eliminate tuition for students who maintain a 2.5 grade point average while working toward a degree. The federal government would cover three quarters of a student’s tuition while states would cover the remainder..
Maryland already provides 25 percent of the state community college system’s $1.1 billion in revenue.
Elena Baurkot, Lily Hua, James Levin, Anika Reed and Jasmine Whittington of Capital News Service contributed to this article.