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.
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.

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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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