President Obama’s fourth State of the Union address is in the books — a 6,000-plus word speech in which he laid out both the blueprint and the underlying justification for his vision of his next four years.
1. Obama goes big on guns: With a chamber sprinkled with the families of victims of gun violence in Connecticut and Illinois, as well as former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the biggest question looming over President Obama’s speech was how forceful he would be on guns. It’s no secret that the proposals put forward by Vice President Biden have met with an indifferent, to put it mildly, response from Congress.
Obama’s decision to save his remarks on guns until the end of the State of the Union and to aggressively urge a vote on all of his gun proposals was, by far, the boldest portion of his speech. If you are looking for a takeaway from the speech, it is this: “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.” Obama’s comments on guns will be the lasting legacy of this speech and a sign that his past pledges to use all of his political power to bring about measures he believes will curb gun violence were not simply rhetoric.
2. Obama’s vision of government: Ever since Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over” 17 years ago, Democrats have been grappling with what role the government should play in average Americans’ lives. Obama sought to articulate the party’s answer to that question Tuesday night with the line: “It’s not a bigger government we need but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” The phrasing attempts to strike a balance between the less-government-the-better view of most Republicans and the New Deal view that Democrats before Clinton long ascribed to.
3. A major climate change play: In the first 30 minutes of the speech, President Obama not only mentioned climate change but also made clear that if Congress didn’t act, he would. His rhetoric on the issue was tough, echoing how he framed the issue in his inaugural address several weeks ago. “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen, were all just a freak coincidence,” said Obama. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.” That’s about as direct a call for action by Congress on climate change as you will hear from a president.
4. A major victory for voting rights advocates: The debate over who can vote, when they can vote and who is trying to stop them animates the Democratic base like no other. Obama dedicated time to the topic in his speech — and announced the formation of a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting process. “When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” said Obama.
5. The economy, kind of: Yes, the bulk of the speech — in terms of words spoken — dealt with the economy. And, yes, he urged Congress to avert the sequester and not shut the government down at the end of next month. But the devil, as always, is in the details, and Obama didn’t offer many of them. With Republicans already on record as opposed to any attempt to bypass the sequester, it’s hard to see how the Congress finds a way to do so. Yes, President Obama talked about the economy. But it’s hard to say he moved the debate forward. At all.
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