Obama's Unexpectedly Energetic State of the Union

In his fifth State of the Union, the president redoubled his efforts and promised to move forward—with or without Congress.
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Larry Downing/Reuters

If you felt a sense of déjà vu while watching President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night, it wasn’t just you. Many of the policies Obama worked to promote were ones that appeared in last year’s address, too—repetitions he noted. It was the determination to move with or without Congress that was new.

Just like he did a year ago, Obama called on legislators to join him in expanding early-childhood education while promising to work with local officials if Congress wouldn’t join him. He reprised a call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. He asked Congress to help close the pay gap between men and women, reform the corporate tax rate by lowering rates and closing loopholes, and help protect the environment. These proposals were part of Obama’s new push on inequality, and he framed them as ways to guarantee “opportunity for all” and jumpstart social mobility. The president also once again made the case for his healthcare law. He offered no excuses for its poor rollout but praised its benefits, especially the requirement that insurers cover people with preexisting conditions.

Amidst so much familiar ground, the absences were telling. Last year, Obama closed his speech with an emotional plea for Congress to vote on gun control—not even to pass it, just to vote. He was denied that vote, and this year he touched only briefly on the matter. For years, austerity has loomed over the speech, and the national debt and deficit reduction have been central themes. This year, the debt got no mention at all, and the president mentioned the deficit only in passing. Free trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership were also MIA. Even with openly gay former NBA player Jason Collins joining Michelle Obama as a special guest, LBGT issues got only the slightest passion mention.

If there was a surprise, it was Obama’s positive tone. The president had a rough few months to finish off a rough 2013, and the White House had downplayed expectations for the speech. Indeed, it’s hard to recall a State of the Union where anticipation in Washington was quite so subdued and downright blasé, but apparently Obama didn’t get the memo. True, as expected, he offered no major new plans, but he seemed energized and optimistic, cracking jokes and even tossing in a Mad Men reference.

While he focused on policies he can implement with executive action, bypassing Congress, Obama avoided playing the scold, cajoling lawmakers more than he chastised them. In contrast to President Clinton, who used the 1995-1996 shutdowns as the setup for a dramatic slam on House Republicans in 1996, Obama barely mentioned the October government shutdown. His strongest rebukes were reserved for Congress’s failure to extend unemployment benefits and for the threat—emanating in part from his own party—to pass new sanctions on Iran; he vowed to veto any such sanctions. Meanwhile, he played up the agreements between Democrats and Republicans on immigration reform, perhaps the most likely area for bipartisan agreement. And he cited John Boehner—"the son of a barkeep [who is now] the speaker of the House"—as a symbol of the American dream.

Of course, it’s a long way from a conciliatory, positive speech to making the “year of action” Obama wants happen. In the face of entrenched, structural gridlock in Washington and an election year, he’ll need good luck and skillful employment of executive orders to put his agenda into action.


This liveblog is in reverse chronological order. To read it from the start at the speech, begin at the bottom.

1o:41 p.m. McMorris Rodgers: "The true state of the union lies in your heart, and in your home." That was a generally strong and mostly positive speech, and McMorris Rodgers avoided any major hiccups along the lines of Marco Rubio's drink of water in 2013.

10:39 p.m. Among the policies she namechecks: School choice, immigration reform (using the GOP's preferring piece-by-piece approach), and lower taxes. She also mentions a constituent who complained of rising premiums under Obamacare. "We shouldn't go back to the way things were, but this law is not working," she says.

10:37 p.m. McMorris Rodgers says Obama talks a lot about income inequality, but that the nation ought to be focusing on equality of opportunity. This actually isn't too far off from what the president called for earlier.

10:36 p.m. McMorris Rodgers' son Cole has Down syndrome. She presents his growth as a symbol of American resilience and the ability to overcome barriers.

10:35 p.m. So far McMorris Rodgers is delivering a good speech, heavy on the folksy, aw-shucks side. It suffers from the same weakness as every opposition reply: She didn't have the benefit of knowing what Obama would say when the response was taped earlier today, and she has to deliver it on tape, rather than live.

10:33 p.m. McMorris Rodgers: "Tonight the president made more promises that sound good but won't help Americans." She says Obama means well, but that big-government solutions won't work.

10:24 p.m. We're standing by now for the Republican response to Obama, which will be delivered by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.

10:21 p.m. A few initial thoughts: As expected, Obama didn't offer many huge initiatives. But this was not a downcast president, nor—with a couple notable exceptions—was it a stern scold attacking Congress. Obama seemed energetic and ready for his "year of action." Yet many of the policies he talked about tonight were exactly the same ones he mentioned last year. With midterm elections on the horizon, is he likely to make more progress in 2014 than he did in 2013? Conspicuously missing from this year's address: any discussion of the national debt, and more than a glancing mention of the deficit. Progressives had been bracing for Obama to praise the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement, and it went unmentioned too.

10:18 p.m. Here's Obama's close:

My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy.  Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy.  Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.  But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress – to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.  The America we want for our kids – a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us – none of it is easy.  But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow – I know it is within our reach.

Believe it.

God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

10:15 p.m. For the emotional finish, Obama is telling the story of Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger badly wounded by an IED in Afghanistan, during his tenth deployment. The NYT's Jackie Calmes tells the story of Remsburg and Obama's relationship here. Remsburg is sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama. Remsburg, flanked by his father, understandably receives the longest sustained applause all night.

10:13 p.m. From where I sit—that is, watching a feed on C-Span—it sounded like some scattered "U-S-A" chants erupted after Obama mentioned the Olympics.

10:11 p.m. If Congress sends Obama new sanctions on Iran while negotiations are underway, he says, he will veto them. That's perhaps the strongest rebuke of Congress we've heard all night.

10:10 p.m. Obama boasts about a deal with Iran to help prevent nuclear weapons. He has to walk a tightrope here: This is potentially a major win for him, but he knows that Republicans and even many members of his own party are wary of Iran and skeptical of the chances for peace. "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today," he says.

10:07 p.m. Middle East bingo: Obama promises to back Syrian rebels. He heralds progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and says they will provide "dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel – a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side."

10:06 p.m. In a clever maneuver, Obama defends both drone war and NSA surveillance—bugbears of civil libertarians—after first pledging to end costly, dangerous, wars overseas, which are even more popular. There's not much new substance here: He says he's limited drones, and mentions the NSA reforms he announced two weeks ago. Once again, the president repeats a call to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

10:02 p.m. And we're on to the foreign-policy grab-bag section of the night. The end of the war in Afghanistan garners applause, though Obama obliquely admits the U.S. still has no agreement with President Hamid Karzai to keep troops there.

10:01 p.m. Obama speaks only very briefly on guns. It's a striking contrast with last year's SOTU, which ended with an emotional, crescendoing demand for gun control. That effort came to naught; this year, the president pledges to take action, but it's notably subdued.

9:59 p.m. "Citizenship means standing up for everyone's right to vote." This is a chance for Obama to play to his base, but also to praise Republicans. He notes that Republicans in Congress as well as a bipartisan voting commission—led by his and Mitt Romney's campaign lawyers—have all called for reforms. For more, read Wendy Weiser here.

9:58 p.m. Dad joke! " Moms, get on your kids to sign up.  Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application.  It will give her some peace of mind – plus, she’ll appreciate hearing from you."

9:56 p.m. Governor Steve Beshear, a Kentucky Democrat, is earning the president's praise. The Bluegrass State has had one of the most successful Obamacare rollouts, and Beshear has done it in a red state.

9:53 p.m. Things are about to get messy: Obama is talking healthcare.

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.  But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda [Shelley, a woman with a preexisting condition he invited to the speech.]

He's not, however, addressing the messy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. This is a rare chance for Obama to speak to tens of millions of Americans, and it's one more shot at explaining the benefits of a law to a populace that still doesn't seem to understand them very well, and he's not going to muddy that with another mea culpa.

9:52 p.m. Obama praises the Earned Income Tax Credit, then offers a bipartisan olive branch: "But I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids.  So let’s work together to strengthen the credit, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead." And he announces myRA, a new savings bond that's meant to encourage retirement savings for people who don't have employer-based retirement plans.

9:50 p.m. Obama notes that he's issuing an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contractors.

9:49 p.m. One of Obama's big themes this year is raising the minimum wage to $10.10. "No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," Obama says. The president notes that he's invited a pizzeria owner who just raised wages and one of his workers to the speech, quipping: "Nick helps to make the dough, only now he makes more of it!"

9:47 p.m. There's our first joke of the night, and the first pop-culture reference: "It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."

9:46 p.m. Obama sounds legimately angry here: "You know, today, women make up about half our workforce.  But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.  That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work."

9:42 p.m. Here's another of the pushes the White House previewed: early-childhood education. Once again, Obama notes that he requested congressional action last year and didn't get it:

As a parent as well as a President, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, thirty states have raised pre-K funding on their own.  They know we can’t wait.  So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year, we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. 

9:37 p.m. Here's an executive-branch action: increased job training. "If Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs." And then he takes out the stick, demanding Congress reinstate unemployment insurance that just lapsed for 1.6 million people. My colleague Matt O'Brien explains what happened here. Misty deMars, who's sitting next to Michelle Obama, is one woman who recently lost UI. She wrote a letter to Obama, and he invited her to the speech.

9:36 p.m. On immigration reform, Obama sticks to areas of bipartisan agreement. He doesn't call for citizenship for DREAMers or anything else, nor does he criticize Republicans. This is the one area where the White House hopes for major legislation, so it's trying honey over vinegar for the time being.

9:34 p.m. After a long all-of-the-above section on energy, he's now talking climate change:

Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet.  Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.  But we have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.  That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.  The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way.  But the debate is settled.  Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.

This is a great example of an area where Obama can't get Congress to move. Since he took office, he's relied on the EPA and other administrative remedies to strengthen regulation. This is probably the most fired up Obama has sounded all night—but there's not much new, and it's likely to disappoint environmentalists.

9:29 p.m. No major surprises from Obama so far. He's talking about reasonably uncontroversial manufacturing proposals, praising small business, calling for tax reforms that both sides agree on in principle; and bashing China.

9:28 p.m. "Get those bills to my desk! Put more Americans back to work!"

9:27 p.m. Just as he did one year ago, Obama calls for corporate tax reform—he wants to lower the corporate tax rate but close loopholes. So far, however, the prospects for reform have been stalled out, and Obama is appointing Senator Max Baucus, expected to be a major player, to be ambassador to China.

9:26 p.m. Obama, in talking about the American dream, shouts out to GM CEO Mary Barra, who's in the First Lady's box, and then to John Boehner and himself: "It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeep is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth." The Boehner line gets thunderous applause.

9:24 p.m. National Journal has the full text of the speech here.

9:24 p.m. "The Pen and the Phone": Obama's advisers are using this phrase to describe his 2014 strategy, which will include using executive orders to get around congressional gridlock whenever possible. Here's a White House fact sheet rounding up those executive orders, as well as the initiatives he intends to send to Congress.

9:22 p.m. Obama says inequality is too high, and there's not enough social mobility. Here's my colleague Derek Thompson digging into a recent study on where people are most upwardly mobile.

9:20 p.m. Obama: "Let's make this a year of action. ... What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America."

9:20 p.m. No More Mr. Nice President: To whoops on the Democratic side, he says it's fine to debate the size of government, but to threaten the full faith and credit of the United States or shut down the government.

9:19 p.m. The president is grappling with a strange irony: Even as the economy is stronger than it's been at any point in his presidency, the mood in the country seems bleak, and a majority of the country says we're headed in the wrong direction. So Obama's starting off trying to pump people up early on:

Here are the results of your efforts:  The lowest unemployment rate in over five years.  A rebounding housing market.  A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.  More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years.  Our deficits – cut by more than half.  And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.

That’s why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.

So far it seems to be working! He was interrupted by applause repeatedly (and apparently not where he wanted to expected) during that litany.

9:17 p.m. Obama: "Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong."

9:09 p.m. Cabinet secretaries are still filing in slowly. We're still waiting on the president. Obama's speech as prepared for delivery and sent to reporters one embargo runs to about 7,000 words.

8:59 p.m. Which Supreme Court justices will show this year? Chief Justice John Roberts is attending, but it looks like there's no Scalia, Alito, Thomas, or Sotomayor.

8:47 p.m. There will be no red-carpet slideshows tonight, but if you're keeping score, Speaker John Boehner is wearing a green tie. Vice President Biden is mixing it up with a blue suit and a purplish tie. As Philip Bump at The Wire notes, Obama looks set to wear a light-blue tie—as he did last year.

8:44 p.m. In case you were expecting the State of the Union to bring out new congressional comity, think again. Here's a tweet from GOP Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, who apparently isn't waiting for the speech to render his judgment:

8:42 p.m. Members of the Senate and the Supreme Court are filtering into the House now. Obama's motorcade has also just arrived at the Capitol from the White House.

8:18 p.m. If you're watching Obama's entry into the House, keep an eye peeled for Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat famous—or infamous—for always being along the aisle to get a presidential handshake and a brief moment of attention. In past years, he's arrived as early as 10 a.m. to guarantee the honor.

8:10 p.m. Every year, one member of the Cabinet stays home from SOTU as the "designated survivor," the member of the presidential successor should disaster befall all those at the Capitol. This year's survivor is Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary and a distinctively coiffed nuclear physicist. As Zeke Miller notes, he's 12th in line for the presidency. Last year's designated survivor was Moniz's predecessor, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

8 p.m. Welcome to The Atlantic's live coverage of the State of the Union address. President Obama is expected to speak at 9 p.m. We'll have live updates, analysis, and information on Obama's speech as well as the Republican response from Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers. 

The theme of tonight's speech is a "year of action" to combat poverty and encourage social mobility, part of a broad Democratic Party push on inequality. But it's also expected to be a fairly modest address, leaning heavily on things Obama can achieve via executive order—an acknowledgment of the gridlock in Washington and the difficulty the president will face in getting any major legislation past a Republican House and past the threat of a GOP filibuster. For more on what to expect, read our primer here.

Elsewhere on The Atlantic, James Fallows looks back at previous president's sixth-year SOTUs for clues to tonight. Conor Friedersdorf explains why Obama should, but won't, radically shake up the format of his speech. Megan Garber remembers when President Woodrow Wilson could shock the nation—just by showing up to give his speech. And Olga Khazan looks at the changing ways presidents have grappled with gender in SOTU speeches.

Watch the speech here:

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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