President Obama on Tuesday delivered a forceful, though pragmatic, State of the Union address, pressing Congress to help him jumpstart the sluggish economy and assist struggling Americans, while acknowledging that he may often have no choice but to pursue some goals on his own.
"Opportunity is who we are," he said. "And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."
Offering a mix of ideas he's floated in the past — like increasing domestic energy production, closing corporate tax loopholes, and investing in infrastructure — along with a few new economic proposals, Obama called on Congress to help him make this a "year of action."
But, he added, "when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States" — a shot at uncompromising Republicans in Congress — "then we are not doing right by the American people."
Here, 8 key takeaways from the speech:
After being repeatedly stymied by Congress last year, Obama indicated he would do everything possible to unilaterally advance his agenda in the future.
"America does not stand still, and neither will I," he said. "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."
In concrete terms, Obama said his administration would create six new technology manufacturing hubs, work with local politicians and philanthropists to improve early education and expand broadband access, strengthen gun laws, and streamline bureaucracy. And, though vague on the specifics, he said he would direct the Treasury to create a new retirement tool, dubbed MyRA, that would be "a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg."
It's an about-face for the president, who previously rejected pleas from liberal critics that he circumvent Congress and address pressing issue on his own. Mere months ago, he responded to a heckler who demanded he issue more executive orders by saying that "there is no shortcut to politics, and there's no shortcut to democracy."
Why the change? Last year was Congress' least productive in at least 40 years, with even popular proposals — ranging from gun control to immigration reform — dying on the vine. Plus there was that whole government shutdown, and the GOP's refusal, until the eleventh hour, to raise the debt ceiling. After five years, it seems Obama has grown as fed up with Congress as the rest of America.
In tandem with the shift to more executive action, Obama appeared to concede what became evident last year: Even after his resounding re-election, he's unlikely to win any more major legislative victories.
Sure, House Republicans are preparing to endorse some aspects of immigration reform, but only — at best — in a limited form. The coming midterm elections will only further dampen legislative zeal, and short of an extremely unlikely Democratic takeover of the House in November, Obama will be stuck dealing with an oppositional, intractable Congress for the remainder of his term.
So instead of seismic change, Obama will pursue smaller goals, both in Congress and through his office, to at least nudge the country toward his long-term goals for the country.
Democrats have in the past few months begun to pivot to the populist issue of income inequality, and the theme featured prominently in Obama's remarks.
"Corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher," he said, "and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by."
To that end, Obama called on Congress to immediately reinstate emergency unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of last year.
For Democrats, the shift is twofold. First, it addresses the fact that the economy has yet to fully recover, and that growing income inequality poses a serious threat to the country's future. And second, it's good politics. There is broad support for Washington to do something to address the yawning income gap, and Democrats feel the issue could be a big winner in the midterm elections.
A push to raise the minimum wage is the most prominent issue under Democrats' broader income inequality agenda. And on that front, Obama said Tuesday he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, from $7.25.
The decision, which could impact hundreds of thousands of workers, is the first of what could be a flurry of executive actions from the president. On another level though, the move is an attempt to prod Congress into taking broader action.
The White House and many Democrats want to raise the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 per hour, an idea endorsed by no less than 600 economists. And there's resounding, bipartisan public backing for raising the minimum wage, too. Seven in ten adults support raising the minimum wage to at least that rate, and even a majority of Republicans agree, according to a Quinnipiac poll released this month.
"So join the rest of the country," Obama said. "Say yes. Give America a raise."
However, congressional Republicans are opposed to the idea, arguing that a mandatory wage hike would hinder job growth; some have advocated for abolishing it altogether. So though the president's action is intended to spur further legislative action, it may amount to very little.
One area where Obama did not vow to take executive action: Immigration reform.
The president used a light touch. He urged Congress to pass immigration reform this year, but did not dwell on the subject lest he upend delicate, ongoing negotiations that many already see as hopeless.
What a difference a few months can make.
In October, Healthcare.gov crashed out of the gate, and deep-rooted structural problems with the federal exchange marketplace suppressed enrollments and threatened to undermine the entire health care law. At the same time, Obama's vow that people could keep their insurance if they liked it proved false, and the president's approval rating fell to a record low.
Yet with the site repaired, enrollments are finally taking off; some three million people have now signed up for insurance through ObamaCare. Hence, Obama took time during his address to spotlight the law and its newfound success.
"For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health care system," he said. "And in case you haven't heard, we're in the process of fixing that."
Obama also asked Americans to encourage their uninsured peers to enroll by the March 31st deadline when the individual mandate kicks in. And he asked that Republicans, rather than simply voting to repeal his law, proposed one of their own if they really wanted to fix the health care system.
As he has in the past, Obama endorsed an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, with a focus on renewable and domestic production, as a way to wean the nation off imported oil.
"America is closer to energy independence than we've been in decades," he said.
Specifically, he highlighted natural gas. And without mentioning fracking by name, he said that "if extracted safely" natural gas could sharply curtail greenhouse gas emissions while serving as a "bridge fuel" to future technologies.
One subject noticeably absent: The Keystone XL pipeline. Obama has delayed a decision on the controversial project, which environmentalists strenuously oppose, but which others say could be an economic boon.
Though Obama's foreign policy themes haven't changed from past speeches, the subjects have.
As he has done before, Obama talked of winding down foreign wars in favor of limited, targeted military actions. And he called on Congress to help him finally close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as he promised to do immediately after taking office. But he also discussed his decision not to intervene in Syria, and talked of sitting out other foreign engagements as well.
"We must fight the battles that need to be fought," he said, "not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism."
The president also defended his administration's ongoing negotiations with Iran, saying it was a historic opportunity to curtail that nation's nuclear ambitions. And he pushed back against a congressional attempt to increase sanctions on Iran, saying "we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."