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While polarization and gridlock continue in the Capitol, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night outlined new Democratic proposals, an improving economy and the prospect of a new chapter of bipartisanship in D.C.

Over 40 students gathered at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government to watch Obama’s address, which was preceded by a talk by College and Law School graduate Miguel Rodriguez. Rodriguez was the director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs in 2013. Penn In Washington, Penn Democrats and the Penn Political Coalition co-hosted the event.

“Helping hardworking families make ends meet, giving them the tools they need for good-paying jobs in this new economy, maintaining the conditions for growth and competitiveness: This is where America needs to go,” Obama said. “We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns.”

Rodriguez largely echoed Obama’s emphasis on an improving economy and the need for bipartisanship.

“When people are being drawn at all times to the extremes of a party, it can be a challenge to continue to look for a fight for that common ground and those common interests,” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard, but I think — and I think the President believes as well — that there is a lot of common ground.”

Rodriguez, who prior to serving as Obama’s legislative director worked as deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, has an intimate knowledge of the process and importance of a president’s State of the Union address.

This year, the White House released policy proposals before the speech, such as Obama’s two-year college proposal and his new tax plan.

“What they did over the last several weeks is they slowly rolled out policies and ideas and gave them each their own space to grab the attention of the public,” Rodriguez said. “Presumably, tonight’s State of the Union is the closing argument.”

The speech could also act as one of Obama’s closing arguments on his presidency, which has received mixed reviews overall. According to a job approval poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 17, 46 percent of Americans approve of his performance, while 48 percent disapprove.

“The president doesn’t have to run two years from now, so he can lay out what he wants to accomplish with a little more idealism than might be realistically possible,” College sophomore and Penn Dems Political Director Sam Iacobellis said. “I remain hopeful, but the realism of us seeing a lot of the proposals that were talked about tonight becoming law are doubtful.”

In addition to outlining his proposals for the next two years, Obama’s penultimate State of the Union also begins to frame the debate for the 2016 presidential election.

“That’s how we start rebuilding trust,” Obama said, referring to his call for finding common political ground in the future. “That’s how we move this country forward. That’s what the American people want. That’s what they deserve.”

For Rodriguez, the politician for the job is his former boss: Hillary Clinton.

“She is, in my experience, one of the most capable people, and I think also she is someone who is smart, consumes information, internalizes it and then is able to formulate policy ideas,” he said. “I know who I would vote for, and I know who my Republican mother would vote for, and my Republican wife would vote for her too.”

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