On Tuesday, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union of his second term to a packed House of Representatives. Taking the podium, Obama laid out an aggressive plan for 2013 in terms of both legislative goals and political action.
From immigration reform to climate change, minimum wage, gun control, and the sequester, here are my biggest takeaways from Tuesday.
1. Obama is finally using the bully pulpit, but he’s still fighting on the GOP’s terms
It’s not exactly a stretch to call last night’s State of the Union “aggressive.”
If anyone was hoping for a post-partisan second term, last night’s speech likely put that dream to rest.
The president went after Republican obstructionism with a Teddy Roosevelt-sized stick, declaring that “the greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” and arguing that “the American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”
Obama did everything but call Republicans out by name, stating that “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” and calling again for a more balanced approach.
Yet, despite engaging in a direct assault on a GOP that has been giving his agenda the finger for the past four years, Obama still had to do it on their terms. Language choices made throughout the speech, such as his promise that his proposals wouldn’t “increase our deficit by a single dime,” show just how effectively the right has framed the debate.
Obama’s blitz is the right approach for a president looking to set an active tempo in his second term and is sure to rally his base around him, but the fight is still staring at an awfully steep hill thanks to his passivity in the first term.
2. The sequester is looking closer than ever to becoming reality
President Obama may have tried to pull one over on the viewers at home but his attempts to distance himself from the sequester while calling for its repeal were met with eye rolls in Washington.
The sequester, a $1.2 trillion package of mandatory across-the-board cuts to military and discretionary spending, was passed with bi-partisan support and signed into law by Obama in an effort to motivate Congress to come to some sort of compromise. Unsurprisingly, they failed to agree on anything, and the mandatory cuts were triggered.
The cuts were initially set to occur on January 1. As part of the fiscal cliff deal, Congress kicked the can a few months down the road, setting the next deadline to March 1.
At first, almost everyone expected the sequester to be addressed in some sort of compromise package that distributed the cuts in a more targeted way and supplemented other reductions with revenue increases.
Unfortunately, it seems that the same problem that created this monster is set to unleash it.
Republicans have made it clear that they are unwilling to include any revenue increases in a package intended to avoid the sequester and some have outright stated their support for letting the sequester happen. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that “it’s pretty clear to me that the sequester is going to go into effect,” citing the lack of “House plans to act on this matter before the end of the month.” Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) actively called for the sequester to advance as planned in his Tea Party response to the State of the Union last night, accusing the president of engaging in “woe is me” politics and mischaracterizing the sequester as cuts in spending when in fact it’s simply a cut in the rate of growth of spending.
On the other side, Democrats have refused to propose any solutions free of revenue increases, a non-starter with a GOP still grumpy about the fiscal cliff tax increases, demonstrating that both sides are willing to let the cuts go into effect rather than cede any political ground.
The sequester is expected to cut over a million jobs in its first year and take an axe to everything from weapons systems to education programs and Medicare payments to hospitals.
On Tuesday, the president called for both sides to come together to find a solution to this “really bad idea.” Unfortunately for the president, what was once an unthinkable political punishment has become an all-but-inevitable reality in this political environment and the time to change that is running out fast.
3. Engagement on climate change will remain more talk than action
Following up on a surprise focus on climate change in his second inaugural address, Obama propelled climate change to the forefront of his regulatory policy early on in his fifth State of the Union.
Tying the argument for climate regulation to his administration’s pursuit of a new energy future, Obama argued that “we must do more to combat climate change.” Citing recent weather emergencies such as Superstorm Sandy and the worst draught in decades, Obama called on Congress “to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.”
What exactly is a market-based solution to climate change? Put simply, it’s the Republican friendly name for Cap and Trade; the bi-partisan McCain/Lieberman bill Obama mentioned in his speech proposed limiting greenhouse gas emissions for companies in the United States while still offering businesses the opportunity to trade and sell carbon credits.
The likelihood of action from Congress on climate change is still effectively non-existent. With big-ticket political issues such as the sequester, gun control, and immigration reform on deck for the 113th Congress, climate change is hardly a top priority for congressional Democrats, much less Republicans.
That said, the Obama administration has options it can pursue independent of Congress. Unfortunately, these executive actions would fall well short of the kind of action necessary to make a dent in current climate trends. But expect the dialogue on climate change to continue, especially toward the end of Obama’s final term.
4. We’re going to see an immigration reform package but it won’t be the one Obama supporters want to see
Immigration reform seemed to have new life breathed into it almost overnight in 2013. With major Republican names such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) changing their previous positions to support a bi-partisan immigration overhaul effort that includes a road to citizenship, the reality of a comprehensive plan appears more likely than ever.
The president’s sharp tack to the right in his State of the Union, expressing support for fines, border security, and mandatory English language proficiency, suggests that there is a plan being crafted behind closed doors and its probably one the left isn’t going to love. More importantly, it indicates that the president intends to let Congress bring this one home.
While such a passive approach is sure to draw fire from his left flank, Obama realizes that the best shot at getting anything resembling meaningful immigration reform through Congress requires that he let Republicans position themselves to take political credit for the final bill.
The president’s stamp of approval on any piece of legislation is anathema to many Republicans, particularly in the House. However, the same exact law helmed by Rubio or McCain has an infinitely better chance of securing passage. Endorsements of the need for immigration reform from both Republican responses following the State of the Union only acts as further proof that there is a deal in the works.
While they aren’t going to get everything they want, supporters of immigration reform should be heartened by Obama’s lean to the right on immigration – it means that there are very real stirrings of life in an otherwise long-dead subject.
5. Stimulus 2.0: A necessary repackaging that isn’t going anywhere
Obama’s populist rhetoric came back in force last night. Calling for a raising of the national minimum wage to $9.00 (pegging it below only Washington State’s minimum wage of $9.19), the president again focused on arguing that growing the economic from the middle out was the best approach to economic growth.
Obama advocated strongly for continued investment in innovation, tech, and American manufacturing. Pointing to new Apple CEO Tim Cook, Obama lauded the tech center for opening plants here in the United States. “There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend,” said the president, proposing new investment in infrastructure, innovation, development, and education.
Obama’s proposals are just the latest incarnation of his continued push for economic stimulus through investment in the future. Put simply, it is an increase in short term spending to invest in programs that will deliver big returns in the long run.
As far as government priorities go, this should be the number one priority for anyone under the age of 30. Unfortunately, stimulus and investment by any other name is spending – something Republicans aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to approve.
Obama is moving in the right direction proposing what has long been necessary reinvestment in the economic infrastructure. But to turn it into anything more than lofty rhetoric Obama is going to need to find some Republican support, preferably from younger Republicans who understand the need to invest in the future of the country. Until that happens, new spending proposals are most likely dead on arrival in a Republican House, especially after the president forced them to break their tax pledge barely a month ago.
6. Gun control legislation got a big boost
The most emotional and powerful moment of Obama’s speech came towards the very end, as the president zeroed in on the issue of gun control.
“They deserve a vote,” proclaimed the president, referencing the tens of thousands of victims of gun violence from the last year. “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” continued the president, “the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
Obama's delivery was strong and the message was brilliantly crafted. By focusing on the victims of gun violence and calling for a simple vote, the president forced Republicans into the position of having to oppose a vote on gun control legislation rather than opposing the measures in the bill itself.
Barely mentioning any specific weapon bans, Obama instead focused on qualifying gun control efforts. “No laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I've outlined,” said Obama. “If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.”
With public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of proposals like universal background checks and high capacity magazine bans, expect to see some serious movement on these issues in the immediate future.
The new assault weapons ban, mentioned by Obama in passing (and not by name), is also sure to get its fair share of attention but the Democratic leadership will most likely jettison the losing battle of banning specific weapons, instead proposing more limited reforms in an effort to appear reasonable while still securing legislative results.
7. 2016 is already underway
Without a doubt, the State of the Union was the main political event on Tuesday evening. But perhaps the more interesting political positioning occurred after Obama was already on his way home. Following the State of the Union, Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul delivered the Republican and Tea Party responses, respectively.
Traditionally seen as an opportunity for up and coming members of the opposition party to flex their political muscle on a national stage, the responses showed that the 2016 election, at least for the GOP, is already kicking off.
Rubio played it safe, sticking to mainstream GOP themes of personal responsibility and anti-government rhetoric. Rubio also made the speech a much more personal attack on the president, accusing him of attacking Republicans and Republican ideas using language like "he accuses," "he criticizes," and claiming that the president "loves to blame" the GOP.
Whining about your opposition isn’t how you win elections but it is how you shore up support among your party. Rubio showed his 2016 aspirations with his strong tilt toward a more moderate middle. Despite being elected as a Tea Party Senator, Rubio steered well clear of Tea Party policy positions like a Balanced Budget Amendment and climate change doubt.
Water bottle moment aside, Rubio was calm, composed, and warmly charismatic in his delivery. With two more years to get his sea legs, Rubio is a clear early favorite for the GOP nomination. Whether he can navigate the tough gauntlet that is the GOP primary remains to be seen but Rubio started making his case for the 2016 nomination last night.
Paul, on the other hand, committed to his Tea Party base in a strong way – calling for implementation of a Balanced Budget Amendment, term limits for Congress, and declaring that there is too much bipartisanship on spending and not enough on cutting. Promising a budget proposal that would balance the budget by 2020, Paul called for a new bipartisan consensus on slashing government. Unabashedly taking shots at the GOP establishment alongside the president, Paul’s response made a strong case for endorsement as the Tea Party’s choice of candidate for 2016.