Poll after poll shows that what Americans care about most is the economy. Poll after poll also shows that Americans care deeply about a lot of other issues, from poverty, health care and education, to foreign policy, national security and LGBT rights.
Ahead of the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 28, we want to go beyond polls for a glimpse at what Americans really want to top the to-do list in Washington, and why. If you could ask President Barack Obama to take on one thing – one policy, one issue, one bill, one idea, one principle – what would it be?
Starting with the phrase “Dear Mr. President, I want…,” write your wish on a piece of paper or posterboard, take a photo of yourself holding it and either email it to us at DearPOTUS2014@gmail.com or tweet it to @AmericaTonight with the hashtag #DearPOTUS. Some of the most interesting images will be compiled in a blog post and used in our broadcast coverage of the State of the Union address. It can be a paragraph, it can be a word, it can be a Dadaist poem. It just has to be legible.
To kick off the project, we asked some of the people and families we profiled in recent America Tonight stories to contribute. Here's what they shared.
The Hekmati family
Ahead of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit to the U.S. last September, we told the story of Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who went to Iran in August 2011 and visited his grandmothers. Two weeks into his visit, he was picked up by the Iranian authorities. A few months later, he was charged with spying for the CIA and sentenced to death by an Iranian court. Though the verdict was overturned due to lack of evidence and a new trial ordered, he remains in the country's notorious Evin prison, with no publicly disclosed charges against him, no trial date set and little contact with the outside world.
Amir grew up in a close-knit Iranian-American family, and his detention has been devastating for them. Amir's father, Ali, developed brain cancer more than a year ago. “Every day he’s in my mind. Every day, every night,” Ali said, explaining that the thought of Amir in prison hurt more than chemotherarpy. Amir's older sister Sarah struggles to explain to her two children, pictured below, where their uncle is. "We just have to keep holding on to hope that we can tell [them] your uncle is going come home and we’re going to keep fighting for him to come home,” she said.
And in the backdrop of a temporary nuclear accord between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers, four top former American defense and security officials asked President Obama yesterday to take "immediate action" to expedite Amir's release. Amir Hekmati's nephew and niece also have a message for the commander in chief.
Earlier this month, we profiled Christina Giorgi, who works in retail in Oakland, Calif. Since she graduated from high school nine years ago, Christina has struggled to complete her bachelor's degree because she couldn't keep up with her quickly mounting loan payments. Today, she's $50,000 in debt and making $30,000 a year. Her current job doesn't pay enough to finish her degree, and her bad credit disqualifies her from financial aid.
"Which is fine by me," she said, "because I have so much loan debt, I couldn't stand to owe another penny."
Her message for the president? Student loan forgiveness. "Our educational system is set up for the rich. Knowledge is power, and we only give that power to those who can pay for it," she said. "I hope one day we can get to the point in our country where you don’t worry so much about how much your education costs, and get to focus on the education itself. And for those of us in major debt already, I hope someday there will be a major relief for us."
The Bryan family
In November, senior correspondent Sheila MacVicar spent some time with the Bryan family of Baltimore. The parents Julie and Aaron met in high school and haven’t spent a night apart in 22 years. Their children – son Zachary and twins Tabby and Gabby – are the bedrock of their lives, but on most days, they weren’t sure how they were going to feed them. Our story, “Feeding a family of five on food stamps,” profiled the family’s fall from the middle class to food insecurity, and the thrice-daily struggle to stretch $8 into a nutritious meal for five.
Six years ago, the Bryans' fortunes collapsed, along with the construction industry. Work dried up for Aaron, a construction project manager, although he says he sends out 30 to 40 resumes a month. Julie was working at a nutrition program at the local school, but then the school cut the program, and Julie was out of the job.
But there's been a recent turn of luck for the Bryans. The school program's back, and Julie is slated to start work again. It's not a whole lot though, and the Bryans would love to be able to afford to do more things as a family.
In November, we launched our "The Other America" series with the story of Stacey Calvin, a mother of three who spends four hours a day getting to and from her job in a day care center, because she can’t afford to live anywhere closer. After paying rent, bills and her travel card each month, Calvin is left with around $20.
Since her story aired, things are getting tougher. She's currently home on a doctor's request. That means missing a full week's salary, paying $30 out of pocket for her visit and $37 for two prescriptions. "As you see, there is not much left for illnesses," she told us.
Her request for the president? Affordable health care. "I called to apply for Obamacare and was told I don't qualify because I make below the minimum," she explained. "I don't qualify for Medicaid because I make more than $900 per month, but I will be penalized and fined because I do not meet the deadline for health insurance. I truly hope and pray that this helps not only myself but the many other families that are in the same situation as myself."
Back in November, we talked with Mikey Barnum, a college graduate who was working as a cashier 36 hours a week at minimum wage in California. He made about $500 every two weeks, but with student loans, debt and the $1,200 annual insurance deductible for his HIV medication, getting by wasn't easy. "It’s scary because you don’t know whether you’ll be resistant during that time you’re off the medication," said Barnum, referring to his HIV. "It’s pretty stressful. You’re lying awake at night thinking, 'Oh my Lord, what am I going to do?'"
Barnum told us this week he's now unemployed, but just applied for a job as a substitute teacher. What's his message for the president? "We in the lower class resent how little we are paid for how hard we work. We resent being demonized for taking government assistance. We don't WANT to, but we HAVE to because there is no other option," he explained. "We cannot even enjoy our right to pursue happiness because we are too busy and tired pursuing survival. Please help us, Mr. President."
What do you want from the president? Send your submissions to DearPOTUS2014@gmail.com or share them with us using the #DearPOTUS hashtag.
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