President Obama used his State of the Union speech to try to redraw the political landscape, placing himself at its center while working to give vulnerable Democrats a shot at surviving what could be brutal midterm elections in November.
Obama limped into the address with weak poll numbers and a stalled agenda after one of the worst years of his time in office — and quickly set about trying to turn the tables on Republicans while arming his party with political weapons.
Here are five takeaways from (and some questions about) the 65-minute address, with the caveat that we may not know until after election day in November whether the remarks were a success.
1) I’m out of order? You’re out of order!
That famous movie-trial misquote captures one of the dynamics at the heart of Obama’s speech. On issue after issue, the president sent this message: “Hey, I am working with CEOs, college presidents, mayors, governors, state legislatures, foreign partners — heck, even Iran. But House Republicans? Eh, not so much.”
Obama’s central speech conceit — I will go around Congress if necessary and take executive action — seemed designed not just to reaffirm that he has an activist agenda but also to distance him from political Washington’s dysfunction. (This was hammered home rhetorically. “I’m committed to making Washington work better … I am eager to work with all of you … let’s work together to close those loopholes … put more Americans back to work … we need to work together …” And that’s just through roughly the first third of the speech.)
Recent public opinion polls leave unclear how Obama’s “no, they’re the isolated ones” rhetoric will resonate. On the one hand, Democrats have a nearly 2-1 edge among voters on which party is more willing to work with the other, and a solid 52-27 percent advantage on which party is more concerned with the needs of people like themselves.
On the other hand, the parties run roughly even on which one can better handle big issues like taxes and immigration, and the GOP has a slight edge (42-38 percent) on which party can better handle the biggest issue of them all, the economy.
And a closer look at many of Obama’s big rhetorical bites reveals that they reflect relatively timid policy nibbles. At a prespeech briefing for reporters, senior administration officials could not describe in detail the president’s proposal for a new “MyRA” retirement option or give even a ballpark figure for how many Americans or how many states would be affected by his pending executive order to raise the hourly minimum wage paid to workers under new federal contracts.
Asked to pick the most important policy initiative in the speech, they pointed to the ConnectED plan to get virtually all school-kids in America access to high-speed Internet — a potentially crucial boost to education, but something he rolled out in his 2012 State of the Union.
2) Women. Women. Women. Women. Did I mention women?
The most memorable moment of the speech came when the chamber rose as one to honor Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama. With a large scar on his face and his left arm still in a brace — legacies of the 2009 IED blast that nearly claimed his life in Afghanistan — Remsburg’s presence served as a powerful reminder of the awful costs of America’s longest war and the personal heroism of those who daily live with its consequences.
But maybe the second biggest moment of the speech — and one of the better laugh lines — came when Obama served up some classic liberal red meat.
“Women deserve equal pay for equal work,” he said. “It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode. This year, let’s all come together — Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”
Obama’s precise policy, the White House explained in a fact sheet, amounted to calling on Congress to pass the “Paycheck Fairness Act.” That proposal would make it harder for employers to defend against charges of wage discrimination. It’s probably no coincidence that the last time the Senate killed the bill, in November 2010, not a single Republican voted in favor of it.
Republicans are plainly aware of the importance of women in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, which saw Obama win women by 12 points and Mitt Romney carry men by 8 points. They chose the only woman in their House leadership, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to deliver their response.
3) Obamacare. 2014 elections. Go!
Democrats up for re-election 2014 can’t run from the Affordable Care Act, but despite their brave words it seems unlikely that they will run on the law, either. What they might do — what Obama strongly suggested that they do — is try to shift the debate from a referendum on Obamacare to a choice between the law’s upsides and the absence of a consensus Republican alternative.
“If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice — tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up,” Obama told Republicans. “We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
Republican House Speaker John Boehner anticipated this line of criticism and recently promised that the GOP alternative is coming.
4) Just one word: Graphene
Every State of the Union Speech has at least one curiosity, sometimes a throw-away line that arouses curiosity or confusion. (Remember George W. Bush’s concerns about human-animal hybrids?)
Last night, Obama spoke of the growth potential of high-tech industries and mentioned in passing a process that produces “a paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel.”
That substance, according to the materials distributed through the enhanced White House SOTU online feed, is graphene.
Odd little wrinkle: Someone suggested in an op-ed column a while back that Obama fashion a line in his State of the Union out of this breakthrough substance.
5) A hint on Iran, a crack on drones
There weren’t a lot of surprises in the foreign policy section of Obama’s remarks. Democrats who favor approving more sanctions on Iran weren’t happy that he threatened to veto bipartisan legislation to do so while his administration tries to forge a comprehensive nuclear deal. Eh. Expected.
What was slightly less clear is what Obama meant by this:
“If Iran's leaders do seize the chance — and we'll know soon enough — then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”
“We’ll know soon enough”? Obama didn’t spell out what he meant. White House officials say it was a reference to the six-month timetable for negotiations and the possibility that a breach by Iran before then would scuttle the talks.
Obama’s drone remarks also raised some questions.
“America must move off a permanent war footing. That's why I've imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence,” he said.
Those “prudent limits” didn’t prevent a December 2013 strike that killed about 15 people in a wedding convoy. And the “I’ve imposed prudent limits” suggested that Obama was done with overhauling his drone policy.
But the president also seemed to be embracing a recurring criticism of his signature counterterrorism tactic: that civilian casualties are feeding the anti-U.S. resentment that fuels extremism, raising the very real possibility that drone attacks create more enemies than they destroy.
Obama’s problems in 2014 may lie more with his friends than his enemies.
State of the Union speeches don’t tend to shift the balance of political power. Only then-president Bill Clinton’s 1998 address moved polling needles much.
And the biggest warning to Democrats and Obama came after the speech itself, when CNN’s Dana Bash corralled Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado and grilled him on whether he would campaign with Obama.
She asked three times. He wouldn’t answer. “We’ll see what the schedule allows,” he said finally.