President Obama did not say last night that “the state of the Union is strong” a favorite phrase used in past State of the Union speeches. Instead he said, “The state of the Union is stronger.” That phrase points away from “the rubble of crisis” and toward a brighter future. In that respect, the address shared much in common with the president’s Inaugural, which presented a broad, liberal vision for Barack Obama’s second term and set policy goals for years down the road. In his address to the join session of Congress, the president was able last night to lay out more specific proposals than he could in his Inaugural speech. But did the president stay true to the ideals he set out in January while delivering his sometimes technical and wonky address last night? We investigate that question – point by point – below.
During his Inaugural address President Obama said “a modern economy requires … schools and colleges to train our workers” suggesting we should improve schools by “[harnessing] new ideas and technology.”
Last night Obama proposed a universal preschool program, integration of technical training into high school curricula, and controlling college costs as his education priorities.
“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
“Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”
“Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it's our job to make sure they do.”
Social Safety Net
Obama made specific references to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in his Inaugural, saying “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.”
The president referenced social welfare programs last night as well, positioning himself against benefit cuts but for reform. Obama said the idea of “some in this Congress” to “cuts to things like … Medicare and Social Security benefits” to avoid the package of automatic federal spending cuts known as the sequester was “even worse” than the sequester itself. Instead the president endorsed “modest reforms” to protect social programs. Such reforms included “[asking] more from the wealthiest seniors” and “[reducing] taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies.” “We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital,” the president added, summing up with “Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep – but we must keep the promises we've already made.”
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” the president said during his Inaugural address, adding that “Every American thrives … when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship” and that “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
These were themes the president elaborated on during his SOTU speech. “We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded” the president said last night. “For more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.”
“Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead … Let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”
“We won't grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters.”
The president also suggested that tax reform may be a key to reducing inequality.
Taxes only came up once during the Inaugural: “We must harness new ideas and technology to … revamp our tax code.”
Last night, the president got knee-deep in specifics. “Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit. The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can't pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America. That's what tax reform can deliver. That's what we can do together.”
“Most Americans … know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share.”
Deficit Reduction and Debt Control
The president was vague during his Inaugural on the size of the relatively size of government spending and revenues, remarking that “We must make the hard choices to reduce … the size of our deficit.”
He expressed somewhat mixed views last night, paying deference to deficit hawks by saying that “we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances,” while defending the importance of government spending throughout the speech. “Let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”
The president also took a page from the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s notebook, when he said “we can't ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.” He championed “a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue."
“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it,” Obama said during his Inauguration. He said pursuing sustainable energy sources will “preserve our planet” and “lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
The rhetoric was less lofty last night. “We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar – with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.” The president specifically mentioned natural gas and funds for “an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”
“I'm also issuing a new goal for America: let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.”
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
The president backed up his decisive language with specific evidence last night. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science—and act before it's too late.”
The president referenced “a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago” and said “if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.”
“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”
Investment and Infrastructure
“A modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce” the president said during his Inauguration, in an atypically specific moment.
Last night he suggested that his idea of infrastructure spending is part of a larger plan of stimulative spending and investment, crucial to jump starting the sagging economy. “every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
Obama highlighted proposals to strengthen U.S. manufacturing by introducing “manufacturing hubs” like one in Youngstown, Ohio specializing in 3-D printers, and investing in scientific pursuits that pay off, the way mapping “the human genome returned $140 to our economy.” He also proposed a “Fix-It-First” program “to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.”
Ending the War
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” Obama said during his Inaugural. “But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war.”
Last night the president said, “This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
In January, the president said “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Notably, the president also mentioned the Stonewall riots of the 1960s, placing that important marker in the American gay rights movement in the context of “Seneca Falls” and “Selma,” references to major historical moments in the womens’ rights and civil rights campaigns, respectively.
Last night, Obama commented that “It is our unfinished task to restore … the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter … who you love.”
The president also referenced the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the potential end of the Defense of Marriage Act, saying “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight.”
Foreign Policy and Diplomacy
Obama was poetic on the nation's role in the world in January. "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully –- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” he said.
The president went into a considerable amount of detail on foreign policy last night. Obama discussed al-Qaeda’s presence throughout “the Arabian Peninsula to Africa,” changing relationships with “Yemen, Libya, and Somalia” and Mali, made an oblique reference to problems of congressional oversight involved with drone warfare, mention of “the regime in North Korea,” and nuclear talks with both Iran and Russia. The president closed by saying “Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change … In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy … And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” The president also mentioned Syria, Egypt, and other countries, and found time to discuss foreign aid, saying “the United States will join with our allies to eradicate … extreme poverty in the next two decades.”
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” Obama said in January.
The president tried to cast immigration reform in a more universal light in his SOTU. “Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Obama also sought to appease Republicans, saying “real reform means strong border security” and referencing his administration’s historically high levels of deportations.
The president also had somewhat harsh language for prospective citizens, saying a responsible pathway to earned citizenship “includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
“For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” Obama said during his Inaugural speech.
He expanded on that idea during the SOTU. “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence. Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago. I urge the House to do the same. And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.”
“Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” the president said in January.
“When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” he added last night. Obama also introduced a plan for a “non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” That commission will be co-chaired by a top lawyer from the Republican Party.
The final mention of voting came during a memorable moment. Obama mentioned a woman in the crowd who, “when she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”” The SOTU crowd erupted too.
The president made only a passing reference to firearms control in his Inaugural address, which was a little more than a month after the fatal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He said “Our journey [to equality] is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”
Last night, in the most memorable part of the speech, Obama paid extended and detailed attention to the problem of gun violence. “I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.”
The president endorsed “background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun” and described legislation designed to prevent criminals from getting guns and to limit “weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines.”
In the most rousing moment of the night, the president listed victims of gun violence, saying that “they deserve a vote.”
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.
Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
The speech last night was wide-ranging, touching on topics like social mobility and veterans’ rights that seem to rarely get mentioned by politicians, much less discussed in even a cursory level of detail. Yet the themes from the president’s Inaugural address seemed intact. Now they enter the messy realm of politics.