President Obama delivered an election-year State of the Union address on Tuesday night that laid out what Obama would like to accomplish on tax reform, the housing mess, and a long list of other items, warning Congress, "I intend to fight obstruction with action." (Watch a five-minute highlight video below.) The "confrontational" speech was more like George W. Bush's "polarizing" 2004 State of the Union than Bill Clinton's "conciliatory approach" in 1996, says David Lauter in the Los Angeles Times, reflecting today's rancorous politics and Obama's misadventures in attempted bipartisanship. Here, eight things political junkies are buzzing about:
1. The speech focused on "fairness"
Obama presented most of his proposals — higher taxes for the super-wealthy, tax breaks for manufacturers that employ Americans — "in terms of fairness," says Adam Sorensen at TIME. The "defining issue of our time," Obama said, is keeping the American dream alive, restoring "an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules." Obama's "biggest new idea was attaching a number to his previously articulated 'Buffett Rule'," says The Washington Post in an editorial: Anyone earning $1 million or more a year would pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. "Think of this as a new version of the alternative minimum tax."
2. But there were no grand proposals
Obama mostly offered "a number of small-ball initiatives," along with a few "lofty promises" that nobody expects to amount to much, says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. Of course, in an election year, he had "a tricky assignment, given that a divided Congress is unlikely to accomplish squat and the incumbent is already under daily assault by those who want his job." Maybe his "laundry-list speech" was the best he could do. Perhaps, says Ed Rogers at The Washington Post. But "Obama played it so safe, he was actually boring."
3. Mitt Romney functioned as He Who Must Not Be Named
"President Obama did not mention Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening," says Mark Landler at The New York Times, "but he didn't need to." The GOP presidential frontrunner "was the unspoken adversary" as Obama called for "a more equitable society" with a level playing ground. This was a "sharp-elbowed" rebuttal of Romney, says Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo. "Romney has raised eyebrows for opposing the auto-industry bailout. In his address, Obama chided, 'some even said we should let [the U.S. auto industry] die.'" Romney has suggested that the foreclosure crisis should just run its course. Obama swatted back indirectly, saying that "responsible homeowners" shouldn't have to wait for the market "to hit bottom to get some relief."
4. Obama wants to help Americans refinance their homes
Obama proposed giving "every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks." Essentially, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast, Obama's "big idea" is "a handout to underwater homeowners using money from the banks. Pure populism." But great policy, says Mark Steitz at The Huffington Post. Streamlining refinancing on a large scale would "put money into the economy, prevent unnecessary foreclosures, and help stabilize the real estate market."
5. And he's going after financial criminals
"Not everything Obama spoke about required congressional action," says TIME's Sorensen. For instance, a new task force will "expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis," and "hold accountable those who broke the law," Obama said. It will be headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who walked away from a pending mortgage fraud settlement between banks, states, and the feds, because it would give lenders criminal immunity. The task force will "help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans," Obama said.
6. Osama bin Laden was mentioned more than health care reform
Obama opened and closed his State of the Union with calls for bipartisanship, citing "his greatest foreign policy success," the killing of the al Qaeda kingpin, says Joel Gehrke at The Washington Examiner. That makes it all the more remarkable that in his list of accomplishments he devoted only 44 words to his greatest domestic achievement, health care reform, says Philip Klein, also in The Examiner. That's "the fewest words spent on health care in a State of the Union speech for two decades."
7. The president's "milk" joke fell flat
Obama told one joke in the State of the Union, and boy, was that a mistake, says Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post. He sets up the joke by talking about how his administration scrapped a 40-year-old rule that made dairy farmers prove they could contain a milk spill, as if milk were "somehow classified as an oil." Then the putative punchline: "With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk." Ooof, says Petri. "Frankly, this was the least funny milk-related thing since Milk. And Sean Penn died in that."
8. Mitch Daniels delivered an "adult" rebuttal
The Indiana governor's rebuttal was full of "adult advice" that nicely set up the Republicans to fight Obama in the fall, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. His "poised and serious" speech "lacked the soaring themes that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) sounded last year," but was a good model for "less sober conservatives" to emulate. That same "reticence renders him a non-factor in national politics," however. Don't I know it, says The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan. Daniels "outclassed" Obama, and his fiscally sane rebuttal "surpassed the actual State of the Union." If I had just these two speeches to go on, "I would vote for Daniels" — if only the GOP would nominate someone like him.
See the highlights from Obama's speech for yourself:
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Paul Ryan's anti-poverty plan is another sign of life in the GOP
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
Subscribe to the Week