SOTU: What was the speech about

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Nicholas Easton, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, Columbus State University

In the face of shrinking poll numbers, a stubbornly uncooperative Republican House of Representatives, and growing public dissatisfaction with the current American situation, President Obama gave a surprisingly strong State of the Union address tonight to a joint session of the Congress. Facing an off year election in which his Democratic majority could conceivably lose control of their majority in the upper chamber, or (though a little less likely) regain control of the lower chamber, time is running out on the Obama presidency. Having barely recovered from the botched rollout of his signature Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and with the country stuck in a pessimistic mood despite considerable recent economic progress (a booming stock market and unemployment finally below 7%), there were pretty low expectations for tonight’s speech. Yet, the ever masterful speechmaker seems to have surpassed expectations with a strong unapologetic speech that can only help him turn around the sagging momentum for himself and his party.

Since the Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections and that party moved hard to the right with the surge in power of the so-called Tea Party wing, Obama’s every initiative has been stymied by an inability to reach a compromise on even the simplest issues. Perhaps the best indication of this was that the House over the last 3 years has passed measures 40 different times to repeal Obamacare despite it never having once been considered by the Senate whose vote would be required and the obvious certainty of a presidential veto.

Many expected that, given this atmosphere, the predictably amicable President would steer away from controversial topics. He did just the opposite, actually challenging the Republicans not to pass any more votes to repeal Obamacare declaring that 40 was enough. Though he kept his good humor, even appealing to Republican House Speaker Boehner by remembering his upbringing and comparing it to his own, he was surprisingly forceful.

He hit on all the expected themes and touted his record on issues as diverse as the economy and the wind down of two wars expected to be complete with the final withdrawal from Afghanistan this year. He even made a strong statement that he would work hard to keep us out of such wars saying we “…should fight battles that need to be fought, not those the terrorists prefer…”

On international affairs he was equally boastful and forceful declaring that the negotiations with Iran to reduce its nuclear weapons was going strong and even though he shared the skepticism of some, we should give negotiations a chance and he would veto any new Iran sanctions that some in Congress have been pushing for that could derail ongoing negotiations. He reminded Americans that “…our alliance with Europe is the strongest the world has ever known…”, and expressed optimism on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, while reaffirming America’s unqualified support for Israel.

The strongest and most consistent theme of his speech appealed to the issue that has been gaining considerable momentum in the country, one which his party has been strongly promoting as the central issue of its platform, the growing income inequality in America. He declared that he would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees of contractors doing business with the federal government, an action he can take without Congressional approval while calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage an issue that is headed for a very close vote in the pro-business House of Representatives. He also called for measures to close the pay gap between men and women, appealing to his party’s significant advantage with female voters.

He spoke of the ongoing efforts he has made to promote U.S. energy independence particularly by promoting alternatives to fossil fuel and increasing automobile gas mileage. He almost mocked some U.S. conservatives by declaring that climate change is an accepted fact and he was working with states and cities to curb pollution despite Congress’s unwillingness to believe in the science and support a national effort in this regard.

On several different issues, he acknowledged the intransigence of Congress and promised to act on his own to the extent that he could through limited executive orders, while still imploring Congress to have a change of heart and work with him on these issues.

The American system is stubbornly designed to make progress difficult under the sort of divided government we currently have and it is too soon to see if tonight’s speech will change either the outlook of Congress or its make-up, but with good humor and soaring rhetoric (topped off by a touching appeal to patriotism as he acknowledged the painful recovery of a wounded Afghanistan veteran sitting with the first lady) Obama reminded us that his best chance for success in the remainder of his tenure remains in his remarkable ability to deliver an address that can potentially make a difference.

Steven GreeneAssociate Professor of Political Science, North Carolina State University

I’d have to say that more so that the issue of inequality, Obama’s focus was on what he could accomplish through executive action, given an obstructionist, recalcitrant House of Representatives. He wanted to show that he is committed to getting things done, regardless of what Republicans in Congress are willing to go along with. Now, he is substantially limited in what he can accomplish by executive order rather than legislation, but he is hoping to create some progress in public policy and to, at the same time, put political pressure on Republicans by taking action on popular policies, e.g., raising the minimum wage insofar as he is able.

All that said, he was clear that what he wants to accomplish—unilaterally if need be—is definitely to tackle inequality, especially by policies which will allow for greater economic mobility, e.g., minimum wage, job training, etc. I suspect that a focus on creating jobs and especially creating genuine opportunities for working Americans to work their way up the economic ladder will be a huge focus of the Democratic party in this election year. I expect that the minimum wage will be the primary legislative focus of this. Even a solid majority of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage and it is very popular among the electorate as a whole.  I don’t think anything will be passed due to the nature of the Republican House, but it certainly puts a lot of pressure on them and it is to the Democrats’ political advantage to focus on this issue.

Eric Ostermeier, Research Associate, Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, University of Minnesota

President Obama gave a well-delivered, but modest speech – taking few rhetorical risks during his address – which suggests he has realized the limits of the power of his presidency during his last few years in office.

That is to say, if the President believed there was a single issue (e.g. ‘economic justice’) behind which he could rally the public to both keep control of the U.S. Senate and take back control of the U.S. House in 2014, his speech would have been more aggressive in his tone and in his proposals (e.g. increasing the minimum wage and wage equality for women).

Instead, the president’s most dynamic and powerful moments came in the arena of foreign policy – particularly with his threat to veto sanctions on Iran while negotiations are taking place and the prolonged standing ovation received by injured veteran Cory Remsburg after the president’s remarks on his struggle to recovery.

In the end, President Obama did nothing to hurt or help his domestic agenda, and it is unlikely he will receive a significant boost in public support that would put the kind of pressure on the GOP-controlled house to make them work with him on his agenda.

John PitneyProfessor of Politics, Claremont McKenna College

The president delivered the speech very well, but it will have minimal impact on public opinion. Presidential rhetoric does not move people as much as presidents hope — and that’s especially true of presidents in their second term.

There was little in the speech that he had not said before. Indeed, there was much in the speech that previous presidents had said.

Inequality is a difficult and complicated issue. The ideas that the president discussed will probably do little to reverse it. But the specific proposals to raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance are very popular. Democrats are hoping that these ideas will help them in the fall elections. The big question is whether the unpopularity of the health care law will overwhelm everything else.

James Boys, Associate Professor of International Political Studies,Richmond University (London), Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London

Last night’s speech was fascinating for many reasons. It was the best, last chance to breathe new life into the Obama demonstration and to put the disaster that was 2013 behind him. Obama promised a year of action for 2014 but this appeared to be lacking in his speech.

The talk was full of small postures and restated positions. It was remarkable that a year into his second term the president had so little new to offer and raises the question as to why he ran for re-election if he has no tangible agenda to initiate over the next three years.

The president spoke of being willing to act with Executive Authority to act, a stance that will do nothing to exacerbate bi-partisanship in the coming years.

The president called out his opponents over their opposition to his health care plans, trying to get on the front foot on this issue, and move beyond the technical issues that have haunted the administration since its roll out.

Much has been made of Obama’s pledge to raise the federal contract minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, but this will have a limited impact. Many federal workers already earn more than this and it will not be retrospective, and so will only have a limited impact at some point in the future.

Issues of immigration reform have become lost in the weeds and the president’s blustering efforts to breathe new life into this is unlikely to help. A bi-partisan group was making interesting headway on this issue last year, until Obama stumbled in and insisted on stamping his own views on the process, that appears to have damned the initiative to failure.

There was little sign here of a contrite approach, seeking the bi-partisan approach to policy that is necessary for success on Capitol Hill.

Obama talked in vague generalities and here was a noticeable lack of specifics in any area that he could realistically be expected to deliver upon.

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