President Obama delivers the State of the Union address. Photo: (AP/Pool)
Here are the 10 most important lines from the president's State of the Union address, followed by a brief explanation of why he delivered them.
1. "After five years of grit and determined effort, the U.S. is better positioned for the 21st century that any nation on earth."
All the muck of the past five years has led to job growth and an improving economy, and I'm determined to be optimistic even if the country is as pessimistic as ever, because I'm not going to follow the media's trapping narrative.
2. "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."
But that debate is over. The passage of the Murray-Ryan budget means that I'm not going to talk about debt and deficits anymore — the trend lines are good anyway, and instead, I'm going to propose new spending and new programs.
3. "...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."
This is about as defiant as Obama got, and it's not terribly defiant. (As the CEO of the federal government, he's going to raise the pay of contracted federal employees. He's going to use his power to expand high-tech research zones.) I don't think Americans will much care if Congress complains about executive overreach in the domestic policy arena. The language of "zones," "credits," and "incentives" defines the president's already-assumed power, and he's not going much beyond that.
4. "Let’s see if we can make this a year of action."
The White House leaned in to this line for weeks. But that was for the buildup. The message going out of the State of the Union will be slightly different.
5. "My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities. And while we’re at it, I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."
Obama is doubling down on his support for fracking (a word he didn't mention) as the prime engine of domestic energy production, even as the anti-fracking movement becomes a significant force in progressive politics.
6. "There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit. Right now, it helps about half of all parents at some point. 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."
Small gestures, like this shout-out to Marco Rubio, and a line about how the son of a barkeep became Speaker of the House, are personal gestures designed to signal a new era of comity between the White House and Republicans as well as subtle pressure points designed to undermine Republicans by driving wedges between them.
7. "Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans."
The biggest applause line of the night. It also signals a fact: ObamaCare is not going anywhere anytime soon. Republicans are, in fact, now offering alternative proposals that preserve much of the core of ObamaCare.
8. "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. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship — and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let’s all come together — Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."
Who wouldn't applaud this? It's a line that requires Democrats to stand up and Republicans to sit down, because it's so transparently partisan. Interestingly, the State of the Union previews handed out to reporters didn't emphasize Obama's remarks about women and the economy. This line also enhances Democratic efforts to congeal around the GOP's "war on women," which is largely about the Republican Party's tone deafness on reproductive rights issues but also (and perhaps more importantly) a way to convince non-Democratic women to support increases in the minimum wage and other wage parity questions.
9. "Finally, if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, and contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone. So let’s get immigration reform done this year."
Obama's much touted "impassioned" plea for immigration reform amounted to just one paragraph, albeit one that wasn't very passionately written or delivered. Why? Nothing will pass the Congress if Obama identities himself with the issue personally. He needs to let Congress, and House Republicans, find their way on their own.
10. "America must move off a permanent war footing..."
Obama really wants this sentence to be part of his legacy. Hence his limitations on drones, his (artificially induced) reforms on the surveillance state, his redoubling down on finding countries to send Guantánamo Bay inmates to, and a bunch of procedural reforms that he believes will outlast his administration. Suffice it to say, liberals don't see Obama as a civil libertarian.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- How I became a borderline hoarder
Subscribe to the Week