State of the Union: What he said, what he meant
By: Carrie Budoff Brown and Reid J. Epstein
January 29, 2014 12:29 AM EST
For a State of the Union speech in an election year, President Barack Obama didn’t sound like he was offering too much red meat for his Democratic base.
But what looked like a speech aimed at showing he was more interested in policy than politics also included subtle election-year messages and clear warnings that he’s ready to move on from a dismal 2013. The GOP can do its part, Obama said, or get out of the way.
Obama portrayed Republicans as fixated on Obamacare, out-of-touch with Americans on raising the minimum wage, and intent on fighting losing battles, such as opposing a hike of the debt ceiling.
Here’s a guide to what he said — and what he meant:
What he said: Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up.
What he meant: I am so tired of listening to Republicans complain about my health law. What viable alternative have they offered? Bupkis. Zip it.
Translation: Obama previewed the White House’s election-year argument for why Democrats shouldn’t run away from the Affordable Care Act.
Yes, the rollout of HealthCare.gov was a disaster, a majority of voters still don’t support the law and big challenges remain on the implementation. But Americans who previously didn’t have health insurance are obtaining coverage and benefiting from it. Are Republicans really going to take that away?
The defense — a rather robust one from a president who has breezed by the issue in recent State of the Union addresses — seemed to play well with Democrats in the chamber.
They jumped to their feet and applauded heartily. Republicans stayed in their seats.
What he said: So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.
What he meant: Whoa, Republicans who oppose a minimum wage increase are seriously out of touch.
Translation: Democrats plan to push this issue as often and as far as they can.
They think they’re on strong political ground. Surveys released this month by CBS News, Quinnipiac University and the Pew Research Center/USA Today found that three-quarters of Americans support hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, up from $7.25.
But the issue is also one that Obama will use to argue that Republicans — and Congress — are lagging behind on boosting wages.
If Costco can do it, if a small pizza chain in Minneapolis can do it, if five states can pass legislation in the last year alone to raise the minimum wage, then so should Congress, Obama argued Tuesday.
What he said: Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. … So let’s get immigration reform done this year. Let’s get it done. It’s time.
What he meant: Get off your duff, already.
Translation: Obama desperately wants to sign an overhaul of the country’s immigration system, but he really tried to play it cool Tuesday.
He didn’t want to do anything to antagonize House Republicans, who appear increasingly open to taking up legislation in the next few months. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is expected to unveil an outline of immigration principles to his caucus this week.
Obama could’ve attacked the House GOP for taking so long to act, more than six months after the Senate approved an overhaul bill with 14 Republican votes. He could’ve threatened to take executive actions that cut back on detentions and deportations while Congress debates the issue. He could’ve placed a deadline on when he would like to see a bill on his desk.
Instead, he did the equivalent of a State of the Union drive by, fearful that anything more might have diminished one of his only opportunities to score a major legislative achievement this year.
What he said: “… I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do”
What he meant: Republicans stalled my agenda in 2013, perhaps the worst year of my presidency. You think I’m going to sit by and let you do it again?
Translation: The speech was a bid to finally move past a bad year, and this passage in particular summarized the president’s orientation.
Obama will try to show voters that he is focused on issues that matter to them — the economy, jobs, wages, college affordability — and not mired in a government shutdown, an Obamacare website that doesn’t work and revelations of government overreach on surveillance.
His ability to make that case rests, in part, on whether people view him as effective. Given that all of the major pieces of his agenda stalled in Congress last year, Obama signaled throughout the speech that he’ll do whatever he can through his executive authority.
The potential pitfall for Obama is that his pledge to make 2014 a “year of action” falls flat with voters. White House officials have long said that executive actions are no replacement for passing bills through Congress because acting alone will always provide a more limited relief.
What he said: “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate — one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people.”
What he meant: Wave the white flag, Republicans. The era of budget and debt limit crises are over.
Translation: Obama won the October government shutdown, but he wants nothing to do with another battle over the debt limit — and he and knows the GOP has little taste for it either.
But just in case, Obama is happy to remind Republicans exactly what they are risking if they block a debt ceiling increase the Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said is required by February.
If there’s any fight over the debt limit, Obama and Democrats will mount the same offensive they did last fall: Paint the Republicans as incapable of governing and unworthy of votes in the November midterm elections.