(USA Today)-- President Obama vowed Tuesday night to use as many executive powers as possible to push his agenda, particularly if Congress doesn't agree with his priorities. Those powers, however, don't always work as quickly as presidents think. Here are some of his ideas and the context in which they will happen.
FULL TEXT: Obama's 2014 State of the Union address
Statement: "After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda."
Context: Unless the United States reaches an agreement with the Afghan government that allows foreign forces to operate there, all troops from the American-led coalition will leave at the end of the year. Finalizing a pact soon is critical for planning, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under pressure from some Afghans and even U.S. ads broadcast there, has so far resisted. Without a deal, American troops will continue to draw down until none are left at the end of December. The lack of a similar agreement in Iraq resulted in a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops there in 2011.
There are about 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to NATO. The peak of U.S. involvement occurred in 2011 when just more than 100,000 American troops were deployed there.
The withdrawal is in keeping with Obama's pledge to end American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars he has said have been costly in blood, treasure and the U.S. image abroad. Some critics in Congress contend that Iraq has reverted to sectarian violence in part because U.S. troops have left.
The White House has said it no longer intends to fight years-long occupations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan and has instructed the Pentagon to build forces accordingly. The Army, for instance, is preparing to cut as many as 100,000 soldiers from its ranks to a force of 420,000, USA TODAY has reported. Budget pressures and a lower military profile abroad account for the reductions.
Statement: "Last year, I also pledged to connect 99% of our students to high-speed broadband over the next four years. Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we've got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit."
Context: There are about 132,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools in the United States. But only 28% of them have enough Internet access to take advantage of digital learning, according to Education Superhighway, a group founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to close the broadband gap. Adding 15,000 schools would raise the number of broadband-connected schools to about 40%. But there's a long way to go to meet Obama's goal of 99% of students.
And there are new concerns about educational use of the Internet after a federal court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's rules on "net neutrality" earlier this month. That decision paves the way for Internet companies to give higher connection speeds to content providers who pay for it - potentially leaving educational sites out in the cold.
OBAMA TO CONGRESS: Don't hinder progress
Statement: "We have to act with more urgency - because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. ... The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."
Context: If health care reform was the defining issue of Obama's first term, the president hopes to make climate change his legacy in his second. But while the debate over climate change has been settled scientifically, the question about what government can or should do about it is not. House Republicans are aggressively critical of administration efforts to reduce carbon pollution. "While I recognize climate change may be an issue some people care about, the president's extreme actions on the matter are of little comfort to those who cannot find a job and are worried about how they are going to make ends meet," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.
Last year, Obama issued a now-familiar promise to use executive actions to tackle climate change, saying, "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will." And he did. Obama released a Climate Action Plan last June, directing the Environmental Protection Agency to devise new carbon pollution standards. And he created a federal-state task force in November to look at ways to mitigate the effects of long-term rising temperatures. He did not make any additional proposals Tuesday.
Statement: "Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight. But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can't wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year, we'll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children. And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."
Context: In last year's speech, Obama proposed "working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America." But beyond a federal-state partnership, Obama's 2013 speech did not lay out a plan to pay for the $76 billion federal cost of his proposal. That he saved for his budget: A hike in tobacco taxes equal to about $1 a pack. With tobacco use in decline and educational costs climbing, Obama's proposal would result in red ink by 2018.
The issue was largely forgotten until November, when two identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate to implement the president's plan. Neither bill includes a funding source, and neither has gotten past through committee.
While a competitive grant program for early childhood education would give pre-K a boost, those grants would come at the expense of current K-12 initiatives without more funding from Congress.
Statement: "That's what health insurance reform is all about - the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don't have to lose everything. Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than 3 million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents' plans. More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage."
Context: After a rocky roll-out of HealthCare.gov beginning Oct. 1 where those who hoped for long-promised health insurance instead encountered frozen pages and lost applications, the government had increased the site's capacity and fixed the majority of the bugs so that several thousands at a time could enroll by Nov. 30.
Last week, the White House could claim 3 million people who signed up for private insurance plans through the federal and state plans - still far short of the 7 million the Congressional Budget Office used as a basis for figuring its budget projections. Enrollment continues until March 31, and Tuesday, Washington state announced 86,000 people had signed up from Jan. 9 to Jan. 23. California and New York have reported similar leaps in enrollment numbers.
There is some concern that 55% of enrollees through the end of December were ages 45 to 65 - which could mean fewer healthy, young people add to the mix of the insurance pool to keep premiums low - but both the administration and outside experts say they expect younger people to sign up closer to the March deadline, as happened during Massachusetts' enrollment in its health exchange under former governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president. The Massachusetts law, passed in 2006, was the model for much of the federal law.
About 6.3 million people have been determined eligible for Medicaid.
Statement: "Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. So let's get immigration reform done this year."
Context: When Obama urged Congress to get moving on an overhaul to the nation's immigration laws during last year's State of the Union address, there was little reason to think anyone would listen. He had unsuccessfully made the call in previous years, and Congress hadn't come close to passing anything since 2007, when President George W. Bush was in the Oval Office.
But Obama was facing a very different setting this time around, with 2014 shaping up to be the last, best hope for an overhaul. The Senate in June passed a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants on a 68-32 vote that included 14 Republicans supporting the bill. GOP leaders in the House have refused to take up that bill, but they are expected to unveil their own plan in the coming days that is expected to include some legal status for the undocumented population.
And with at least six undocumented immigrants in the chamber Tuesday night (guests of members of Congress and the White House), there's no question immigration advocates will keep the pressure on Obama and Congress to get something passed once and for all.
Statement: "Today, 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. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by - let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all."
Context: From 2009 to 2012, incomes of the top 1% of earners grew by 31.4%, according to a recent University of California-Berkeley study. The wealthy were benefiting from a stock market rally and recovering home prices. But incomes for the bottom 99% grew only 0.4%. In 2012, the top 10% of earners took about half of the nation's total income-the largest portion since 1917, the study says.
Meanwhile, average hourly private-sector earnings have risen 9% since the recovery began in June 2009, to $24.17 from $22.17, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After adjusting for inflation, wages have been virtually flat.
The number of unemployed Americans has fallen from a peak of 15.3 million in October 2009 to 10.3 million in December. But that doesn't capture the millions of discouraged Americans who have dropped out of the labor force or are working part time even though they want full-time jobs.
Statement: "And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran's nuclear program - and rolled parts of that program back - for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Context: Iran's nuclear ambitions have bedeviled American presidents for decades. In the latest attempt to prevent Iran from attaining a bomb, the United States, Russia, China and European leaders reached an agreement in November to limit its nuclear activities in return for relief from up to $7 billion in sanctions that have damaged its economy. The West believes Iran could be close to building a nuclear weapon, although Iran maintains its nuclear efforts are for peaceful purposes such as energy and medicine. The deal gives both sides six months to reach a long-term agreement to roll back Iran's nuclear program. In the interim, Iran has allowed increased access to international inspectors.
There is some evidence that Iran is complying, as Obama stated. The International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran had stopped enriching uranium above 5% purity, according to a confidential report by its inspectors obtained by the BBC last week. Enriched uranium is needed for a nuclear weapon. Iran has also begun diluting its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%. U.N. inspectors will have increased access to Natanz and Fordo nuclear sites, according to the report. Iran state-run television has reported that some centrifuges used to enrich uranium have been disconnected.
The Israeli government remains unconvinced that Iran has given up its quest for a nuclear weapon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Iran is using the six-month period to enhance its bomb-making technology and that the agreement has only delayed that by six months, Reuters reported.
Statement: "We can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commute - because in today's global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure. We'll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible."
Context: Ever since he signed the Recovery Act in his first month in office, spending on infrastructure has been a key part of Obama's jobs platform. But Congress still has the power of the purse, and it's a power it has been reluctant to use in a post-earmark, debt-obsessed, Tea Party era.
But the recent budget deal passed by Congress gives Obama some hope. Congress allocated $600 million for a competitive grant program that would allow the Obama Administration to pick the most innovative transportation projects, instead of merely doling out money to states based on a formula. That program, known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), has $125 million more than before the budget deal. But as Obama noted, Congress still has to pass bills authorizing that new spending.
Statement: "Citizenship means standing up for everyone's right to vote. Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened. But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it; and the bipartisan commission I appointed last year has offered reforms so that no one has to wait more than a half hour to vote. Let's support these efforts. It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy."
Context: The 1964 Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to clear any changes in their voting laws - including district lines, voter identification requirements and even the locations of polling places - with the Justice Department in advance. The law was so popular it was reauthorized in 2006 by votes of 390-to-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. But last year, the Supreme Court ruled that holding some jurisdictions to a higher standard than others violated the constitution. Members of Congress on both sides want to fix that key provision, but it hasn't been a high priority in a Congress preoccupied by budgetary issues.
The night of his 2012 re-election, Obama promised to fix the long lines that inconvenienced some voters. He appointed a bipartisan commission, and last week that commission recommended a variety of reforms: Opening more schools as polling places, allowing more early voting, cleaning up the voter registration rolls and streamlining ballots for overseas and military voters. But the commission did not take a stand on more controversial issues, like requiring voter identification.