Wonkbook: A policy 101 for the 2014 State of the Union

January 29

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(Photo by Larry Downing/AP)

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 6,786. That's how many words were in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last night, at least in the version as prepared for delivery.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: The language of the State of the Union speeches.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) a summary of last night's State of the Union speech; with special attention to (2) the role of executive actions; (3) policies to address inequality; (4) meanwhile, a look and the economy; and (5) why Congress is surprisingly functional.

1. Top story: A starting-point summary of last night's State of the Union

What Obama said in the 2014 State of the Union. "President Obama sought Tuesday to restore public confidence and trust in his presidency after a dispiriting year, pledging to use his White House authority with new force to advance an agenda that Congress has largely failed to support. In his fifth prime-time State of the Union address, Obama returned to a familiar problem--Washington’s bitter and stalemated politics, the complaint that drove his insurgent campaign for president in 2008. But now, after five weary years in office, it was clear he saw it differently. Instead of pledging to fix the mess, the president was now promising to find ways around it, and change policies on his own authority." David Nakamura and David A. Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

Transcript: Full text of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union addressThe Washington Post.

Watch: The full videoThe New York Times.

Transcript: The Republican response, by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, to the State of the Union addressThe Washington Post.

Watch: The full videoPBS NewsHour.

Liveblogs: Read the continuous coverage provided by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The facts: Glenn Kessler checks the speech line-by-lineThe Washington Post.

The profile of Sergeant Remsburg, the veteran featured in last night's speech, that you should read. "In more than four years in office, Mr. Obama has met privately with nearly 1,000 men and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet his repeated encounters with Sergeant Remsburg stand out for bringing a president face to face with the resilience of the wounded and the brutal costs of the wars...Aides could not name any other wounded service member whom Mr. Obama has met three times, nor any other who first stood before the commander in chief in battle-ready prime." Jackie Calmes in The New York Times.

Looking back: Obama’s 2013 State of the Union proposals: What flopped and what succeeded. Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post.

Multiple GOP responses to State of the Union: Are they a sign of party division? "When it comes to rebutting President Obama’s national address Tuesday night, Republicans have four different approaches from four different corners of the party’s ideological wings. This four-vs.-one approach, to some, is the result of the expanding media universe that allows many different views to be heard, reaching so many different voters. Yet others see the various responses as a sign of a divided Republican Party that cannot unite around the single idea or a single voice to respond to Obama’s State of the Union address." Paul Kane and Robert Costa in The Washington Post.

How Obama dealt with Obamacare in the address. "Obama focused instead on the benefits of the law that already have taken effect, and their potential to protect Americans from crippling medical expenses. He likened the health care law to proposals he made on subjects including raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and boosting retirement savings...Obama also highlighted the contributions of Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear." Jeffrey Young in The Huffington Post.

@sarahkliff: What's different about this SOTU: Obama can actually talk about people gaining from the insurance expansion. Not true up til now.

How the State of the Union could make a difference on immigration reform. "With those recent developments in mind, House Democrats told reporters Tuesday that they anticipate Obama will be "respectful" of the GOP's apparent thawing in his State of the Union. They don't believe he'll challenge Republicans on the issue, make too explicit demands or announce any executive orders that would indicate he plans to circumvent Congress on immigration policy." Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo.

@jimgeraghty: Cold night for all the diehard State of the Union fans tailgating in the U.S. Capitol parking lot.

Gun control was almost gone. "A year after making a call for his broad gun control agenda the emotional big finish, Obama devoted just two sentences to preventing gun violence...The gun control movement has focused its attention away from Washington, to the state and local level where progress can be easier to come by." Reid J. Epstein in Politico.

History: When the State of the Union was controversial. "A little more than 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson had Washington, D.C., "agape" at his decision to deliver the State of the Union address in-person to Congress. It was the first time in more than a century that a president had the gall to do such a thing. Since the early 1800s, the address was delivered in writing." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

History chart: The language of the State of the Union speeches. Kennedy Elliott in The Washington Post.

THE WASHINGTON POST: Opportunities to work together. "[What ideas] have at least a chance at passage: updating patent law, authority to pursue tariff-slashing trade deals in Asia and Europe and Mr. Obama’s welcome pitch for housing finance reform all should win some GOP backing. The president proposed expanding the earned-income tax credit to include childless workers, which would improve work incentives and lift many single men and women out of poverty. This idea also has the virtue, politically, of taking what was originally a GOP program and reshaping it in a way that’s at least not inconsistent with recent anti-poverty proposals from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). If Republicans are serious about their avowed concern for poverty and inequality, they’ll take the president up on this proposal. Immigration reform is another area where both parties should be able to find common ground." The Washington Post Editorial Board.

THE NEW YORK TIMES: The state of our union is diminished. "Obama’s speech on Tuesday night acknowledged the obvious: Congress has become a dead end for most of the big, muscular uses of government to redress income inequality and improve the economy for all, because of implacable Republican opposition. As a result, the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency will be largely devoted to a series of smaller actions that the White House can perform on its own...But he left out an executive ban on discrimination by contractors against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That would have made a strong statement about fairness in spending taxpayer money." The New York Times Editorial Board.

@ObsoleteDogma: Did I miss the part where Obama called for a Progressive Kristallnacht?

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Pitch number six. "The State of the Union address in the sixth year of any Presidency is rarely compelling. The White House tries to portray a renewed sense of vigor and perhaps a fresh proposal or two, while the public has begun to tune the familiar man out...The puzzle of the speech is that he far spent less time on the issues that might get done—immigration and tax reform, freer trade—than he did on the liberal priorities that are unlikely to pass." The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

FAVREAU: How Obama prepares for the State of the Union. "I have worked on five State of the Union addresses, and they never get easier. The President starts thinking about this speech in late November, and each year, he would begin with a few bold pronouncements: “This will not be a laundry list!” and “This one will be shorter than all the rest!” By the weekend before, we’d be cutting furiously, fending off additions from the rest of the administration (and the President!) in a desperate attempt to keep this monster under an hour. Obama himself would clock consecutive 2 a.m. nights editing and revising. And if anyone’s looked at the White House Instagram feed lately, you’ll notice that Director of Speechwriting Cody Keenan hasn’t had time to shave a single hair from his face since late in 2013." Jon Favreau in The Daily Beast.

@TPCarney: Citizenship means letting Obama read all your emails.

COHN: Who are you calling a lame duck? "[T]here may yet be opportunities. In the speech, Obama mentioned the need to reauthorize spending on highway and water infrastructure—both easy vehicles for infrastructure spending...[Incremental action from Obama] can showcase and reward the most successful programs—many of them already in operation, in conservative states like Georgia and Oklahoma. And those examples can build support for greater initiatives, even if it will take a future president to sign them into law." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

CHAIT: What Obama is really trying to do in the State of the Union address. "Those low approval ratings provide the impetus for Obama’s splashy new message. Everything about Obama’s messaging — the image of vigorous unilateral action, the laser focus on jobs, the small but popular policy initiatives attached to it — serve the goal of patching up the president’s standing and framing the Washington story in the most favorable terms possible. The State of the Union address is not an effort to fundamentally reorient the administration’s strategy. It’s a campaign to mend the political damage from the botched Obamacare launch." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

@Goldfarb: The call to expand the EITC may be the most important and creative idea in the SOTU speech

KLEIN: The ground has shifted beneath Obama. "Obama distilled his vision into a series of small-bore ideas he's mostly presented before on ending tax loopholes, creating manufacturing hubs, increasing the minimum wage, and improving job training, among others. Though he urged Congress to act on these priorities (along with immigration, climate change, unemployment insurance, and universal preschool), he did so without much expectation that anything would pass through a Congress in which Republicans control the House of Representatives. He couldn't even muster up much passion to deliver his ritual indignant scoldings of GOP intransigence. Instead, he has resigned himself to bypassing Congress and taking limited executive actions where he can." Philip A. Klein in The Washington Examiner.

BARRO: Four ideas Obama should have pushed in the State of the Union. "Marijuana: Obama could have used the State of the Union to announce that he was directing the Drug Enforcement Administration not to interfere with the legal marijuana trade in Colorado and Washington, and to call on Congress to repeal federal laws against marijuana...Intellectual property: Obama could have laid down a marker: That the purpose of intellectual property law is not to reward and enrich inventors but to elevate standards of living. That principle would be a basis for a much broader rollback of IP protections." Josh Barro in Business Insider.

BERNSTEIN: First impressions. "The challenge for the President was to avoid ticking through a list ideas that had no chance of going anywhere.  I think he largely avoided that...[T]he President cannot and should not let Congress block his every move and good for the administration for trying to find other ways to help working families overcome opportunity barriers in our increasingly unequal economy." Jared Bernstein on his blog.

In memoriam interlude: Pete Seeger, "Where have all the flowers gone?"

Top opinion

EMANUEL: Obamacare vs. the Republican alternative. "The largest difference is in cost control. Currently, employer-sponsored health insurance is tax free; the Republican plan would make employees pay income tax on at least 35 percent of what their company pays for their plan. The idea is to make patients pay more for their coverage, giving them an incentive to choose cheaper health insurance plans with more deductibles and co-payments, which, in turn, would encourage them to shop around for cheaper tests and treatments and forgo unnecessary ones." Ezekiel Emanuel in The New York Times.

ORSZAG: Why isn't comparative effectiveness research getting done? "[O]nly 37 percent of the institute’s research funding has gone to comparing two or more treatments (including usual care or the option of doing nothing), according to a new report by Neera Tanden, Ezekiel Emanuel, Topher Spiro, Emily Oshima Lee and Thomas Huelskoetter of the Center for American Progress...[T]he Institute of Medicine has already identified the top 25 topics that should be assessed. Unfortunately, out of the 284 studies the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute has funded to date, only 34 (or 12 percent) address these priority topics." Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

PORTER: Why we need a New Deal to tackle long-term unemployment. "Thirty-nine states used $1.3 billion from the fiscal stimulus package passed in 2009 to create more than 260,000 jobs by subsidizing private employers. A subsequent evaluation of the program found that two-thirds of these jobs would not have existed without the subsidy. Many of those jobs went to people who were difficult to employ, including workers who had been jobless for a long time, people on welfare and workers with criminal records. Yet after the program ended in September 2010, 37 percent of the formerly subsidized workers kept their jobs." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

SUNSTEIN: Why economic mobility is stuck in neutral. "hey find that certain factors are highly correlated with increased mobility. Areas with low percentages of single parents show higher mobility. There are also strong correlations between upward mobility and high-quality K-12 school systems. Higher mobility is highly correlated with indices of “social capital."...Levels of mobility are unusually low in regions with larger African-American populations. But whites show similarly low levels of mobility in such areas. The researchers suggest a possible explanation: Areas with large African-American populations are highly segregated, and segregation might have adverse effects on mobility for both groups." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

EDSALL: How should economics respond to Piketty? "There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality." Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times.

DAVIDSON: Building a Harley faster. "Harley’s York factory represents an alternative to the common narrative of American manufacturing. In recent decades, countless sleepy Northern manufacturers suddenly awoke to global competition. They often responded by breaking their unions, by moving to a Southern right-to-work state or out of the country altogether, and by employing robots on the assembly line. This strategy has been repeated so many times that even as overall manufacturing output has grown by nearly 25 percent, manufacturing jobs have fallen by 30 percent since 2000." Adam Davidson in The New York Times.

SWAGEL: Challenges for the Yellen Fed. "If a strong enough economy can bring people off the sidelines and back into the labor force, then there is more slack in the labor market than implied by the recent decline in the unemployment rate. In this case, the Fed could maintain easy monetary conditions in an attempt to drive up wages and the participation rate...If inflation picks up, however, this would signal that the labor market has reached a new normal in which wage and inflation pressures arise with lower participation and higher unemployment than in the past." Philip Swagel in The New York Times.

Labor interlude: This college football team is trying to form a union.

2. The executive-action strategy

Obama prepared to avoid Congress, go it alone on carrying out modest initiatives. "For the first time since taking office, Obama spoke to Congress on Tuesday evening from a clear position of confrontation. The areas he identified for possible cooperation with a divided Congress have shrunk, leaving an agenda filled out by a growing number of modest initiatives that he intends to carry out alone...The tone and approach reflect the White House’s conclusion that Obama spent too much time last year in conflict with recalcitrant lawmakers, rather than using the unilateral powers in his grasp...But the strategy risks further antagonizing Congress and resting part of his legacy on executive actions that do not have the permanence, or breadth, of major legislation." Scott Wilson in The Washington Post.

Key explainer: Here are 7 things Obama just said he’d do without CongressBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

The Republican critique of Obama's executive-action push. ""He's governing by edict," said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). Republicans concede Mr. Obama has the authority to do things like raise the minimum wage for employees at federal contractors. But Mr. McCain argues such moves poison the well of bipartisanship: "He has the authority, but it's the spirit of the Constitution that he is violating."" Janet Hook in The Wall Street Journal.

Obama ordered a raise in the minimum wage for government contract workers. "President Obama will announce in the State of the Union address Tuesday that he will use his executive power to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for workers on new government contracts, fulfilling a top demand by liberal lawmakers and groups, according to a White House document...A survey by the National Employment Law Project of contractors who manufacture military uniforms, provide food and janitorial services, and truck goods found that 75 percent of them earn less than $10 per hour. One in five was dependent on Medicaid for health care, and 14 percent used food stamps. Obama’s action will only slowly trickle out into workers’ paychecks, beginning in 2015 and at the start of new contracts." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

How can he do that? "President Obama would issue an executive order giving preference in awarding federal contracts to companies that pay their workers at least $10.10 per hour. The rules would only affect new contracts signed in 2015 or later (and not companies on existing contracts)...By some estimates, around 200,000 people — though this would only happen gradually, over time, as new federal contracts get awarded. That's about 10 percent of the federal contracting workforce." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Boehner didn't like Obama's decision. ""I suspect the president has the authority to raise the minimum wage for those dealing with federal contracts. But let's understand something: This affects not one current contract, it only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think the question is, how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."" Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

Obama also ordered the creation of a new middle-class savings tool. "The administration didn't provide many details about the new accounts, which President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address. The accounts would be called "myRAs," and be structured like a Roth Individual Retirement Account. Like savings bonds, the investment would be backed by the federal government. The White House plans to create the accounts through an executive action, meaning it wouldn't need congressional approval. The Treasury Department is expected to encourage employers to offer the investment vehicles to employees who would be automatically enrolled unless they specifically elected not to participate." Damian Paletta and Anne Tergesen in The Wall Street Journal.

We also got an executive action on education. "Obama talked about one such initiative on Thursday night. It’s called “ConnectED”—a program to vastly increase the broadband access for public schools. The initiative is possible because funding comes from a small fee on cell phone bills, one that the FCC can set without congressional authorization. It’s not much money to the typical consumer—the figure I’ve seen suggests it’d be no more than $12 per person over the course of three years. But that money can make a huge difference to the schools." Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

The limits of executive authority. "[W]ith some notable exceptions, only so much can be delivered through the president’s pen if he is not using it to sign legislation. He cannot raise the minimum wage for most workers, overhaul the Social Security system, grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, reorder spending and taxes, or even make necessary fixes to the health care law...At the same time, anyone who succeeds him can use the stroke of a pen to undo Mr. Obama’s actions just as Mr. Obama did to some Bush-era policies one day after his inauguration in 2009." Carl Hulse in The New York Times.

Another drawback on executive actions. "Because executive orders are intended first and foremost to direct the conduct of the executive branch, they must be sensitive to diverse opinions and interests within the executive branch. Typically, the interagency consultation needed to produce executive orders is neither quick nor simple." William A. Galston in The Wall Street Journal.

Geniuses interlude: Watch Bill Gates lose a chess match in 79 seconds.

3. Inequality in focus

Inequality was one of the core themes of the State of the Union. "President Barack Obama pledged to address deepening inequality in the US, with a volley of directives covering everything from higher wages for low-paid federal workers to new government-backed retirement accounts...The minimum wage move dovetails with the primary theme of the speech and Mr Obama’s second term – his campaign to reduce growing inequality in the US, although the speech focused more on creating “opportunity” than on the gap between the rich and poor. After four years of economic growth “corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”" Richard McGregor in The Financial Times. 

Obama won’t talk about the biggest thing he’s done to fix inequality: Raise taxes. "“Changing tax rates is likely to have small effects on supply of labor and capital and on output,” the Congressional Research Service reported earlier this month. Wealth managers dealing with high net worth individuals say that’s because, by and large, people making enough money to land in those top two tax brackets are affluent enough that taxes don’t materially affect their quality of life." Lydia DePillis in The Washington Post.

Obama also proposed widening eligibility for the EITC. "The way EITC works now is that it offers a substantial economic boost to a population largely composed of working single moms and some married couples with kids, but very little for people who don't have kids at home. As this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details, changing that to make EITC benefits more broadly available would do a lot to boost incomes in a way that encourages and rewards work and employment. They also think it might boost marriage rates, by boosting the incomes of male low-wage workers and making marriage and family formation more feasible." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

Meanwhile, Americans feel they are slipping out of the middle class. "If you actually take a close look at the numbers, it turns out that of the people who identified as middle class in 2008, nearly a third of them now identify as lower middle or lower class...Class self-identification is deeply tied up with culture, not just income, and this decline means that a lot of people—about one in six Americans—now think of themselves as not just suffering an income drop, but suffering an income drop they consider permanent. Permanent enough that they now live in a different neighborhood, associate with different friends, and apparently consider themselves part of a different culture than they did just six years ago." Kevin Drum in Mother Jones.

Internet interlude: An award show for GIFs.

4. Meanwhile, mixed economic data

Durable goods orders tumble 4.3 percent, suggesting business caution. "Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had a median forecast that durable-goods orders would rise by 1.5% in December. The decline, the biggest since July, was driven by a sharp drop in demand for civilian aircraft. Excluding the volatile transportation sector, durable-goods orders fell 1.6%—itself the biggest decline since March." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. home prices rise in November. "The home price index covering 10 major U.S. cities increased 13.8% in the year ended in November, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price report. The 20-city price index increased 13.7%, close to the 13.8% advance expected by economists. The two indexes indicate home prices are back to levels seen in mid-2004." Kathleen Madigan in The Wall Street Journal.

Global markets are freaking out. Here’s what the Fed should say. "The worldwide rout is unlikely to deter the Fed from continuing to reduce the amount of money it is pumping into the U.S. economy by $10 billion to $65 billion a month as officials convene in Washington Tuesday and Wednesday. The central bank wants to move deliberately, minutes of its last meeting show,  out of “concern about the potential for an unintended tightening of financial conditions." That covers both the United States and the rest of the world." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Out of bounds interlude: "I'll break you in half. Like a boy."

5. Congress is working. Wait, what?

Republicans surrender on debt ceiling imminent. "House Republicans are getting ready to surrender: There will be no serious fight over the debt limit. The most senior figures in the House Republican Conference are privately acknowledging that they will almost certainly have to pass what’s called a clean debt ceiling increase in the next few months, abandoning the central fight that has defined their three-year majority...The reason for the shift in dynamics in this fight is clear. Congress has raised the debt limit twice in a row without drastic policy concessions." Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan in Politico.

Graph: The $956 billion farm bill, in one graphBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

House poised to vote on farm bill. "The House cleared the way for a Wednesday showdown vote on the new farm bill agreement, even as Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to dedicate a portion of the savings to help pay for extended unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. The 222-194 vote Tuesday made for a sharp contrast with the broad support now enjoyed by the farm bill itself. And after two years of struggle, the Agriculture Committee leadership is increasingly confident that the giant measure will now prevail—almost exactly six months after it was upended by the same chamber last June." David Rogers in Politico.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Did Sen. Coburn lose his cancer doctor because of ObamacareSarah Kliff.

Here are 7 policies Obama just said he’d pursue without CongressBrad Plumer.

The $956 billion farm bill, in one graphBrad Plumer.

Obama won’t talk about the biggest thing he’s done to fix inequality: Raise taxesLydia DePillis.

Global markets are freaking out. Here’s what the Fed should sayYlan Q. Mui.

Obama is boosting the minimum wage for federal contractors. Here’s howBrad Plumer.

Et Cetera

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail us.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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