(CBS NEWS) -- In his first State of the Union address since his reelection,
President Obama picked on some of the themes of his inaugural address:
He called on Americans to recognize "certain obligations to one
another," offering a vision in which government plays a crucial role in
boosting the middle class and an appeal to economic fairness and shared
He also sought to change the conversation in
Washington, which has focused on bringing down the deficit and debt,
with a call for spending on infrastructure and in other areas.
clear: Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," Mr. Obama
said. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government
that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
while the president echoed some of the loftier rhetoric of his
inaugural, he also followed tradition and used the State of the Union to
lay out some specific proposals. And while Mr. Obama was occasionally
vague - more on that shortly - he made the case that he had a series of
concrete, ostensibly uncontroversial ideas that could move the country
forward, if only Republicans in Congress will stop standing in the way.
take a look at the five key moments from the speech - and assess
whether the president's words are likely to be followed up by concrete
The minimum wage
was, the White House said, the most tweeted moment of the night: The
president's call for Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from
the current level of $7.25 up to $9 per hour. "Tonight, let's declare
that, in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time
should have to live in poverty," said the president, who told the nation
that a full time minimum-wage worker makes just $14,500 per year. The
president wants the minimum wage to hit $9 by 2015 and then be tied to
the cost of living in the future.
First, a little
context. The president actually called for a greater increase in the
federal minimum wage in the past: As a candidate, he called for it to be
increased to $9.50 per hour. It's also worth pointing out that Mitt
Romney called for
allowing the minimum wage to be tied to the cost of living, to the
consternation of some conservatives, though he later suggested he did
not support raising the minimum wage level.
we likely to see Congress take up the president's call? It's not likely.
The minimum wage was increased three times between 2007 and 2009, a
period when the Democratic Party controlled Congress. It's no
coincidence that it has not increased since Republicans took control of
the House. The GOP has long been skeptical of increases in the minimum
wage, which are generally opposed by business interests who complain
that it means increased costs and potentially less hiring. There's
little reason to believe that Republicans in the House will reverse
course anytime soon.
Here's another issue where the president's rhetoric is unlikely to
spur action from Congress. As he did in his inaugural address, Mr. Obama
made a forceful case for taking steps to address climate change,
calling on Americans in the wake of superstorm Sandy and other intense
weather events "to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and
act before it's too late."
Mr. Obama asked
Congress to pursue a "bipartisan, market-based solution," even invoking
his onetime rival John McCain's past efforts on the issue. But he is
well aware that many in Congress - including some of his fellow
Democrats - have little appetite for climate change legislation, which
critics said would hamper economic growth. At the start of his first
term, Mr. Obama rallied support for a "cap-and-trade" plan that would
allow polluters to trade permits for carbon emissions; it collapsed in
the Senate in the middle of 2010, to the lingering disappointment of
With Republicans in control of
the House, a resurrection of the cap and trade bill is a non-starter,
something Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge Tuesday night when he said
that "if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."
What can he do? One step that the White House appears poised to pursue
is curbing emissions from power plants; another is mandating increased
energy efficiency for household appliances. He also plans to push for
continued investment and research in cleaner energy, paid for in part
via an "Energy Security Trust" funded by oil and gas revenues. It could,
he claimed, help the nation achieve what even the most optimistic
environmentalists would have to acknowledge is a lofty goal, at least in
the short term: Shifting "cars and trucks off oil for good."
Fixing the voting process
of the most emotional moments of Tuesday's speech came when Mr. Obama
pointed to 102-year-old Floridian Desiline Victor, who had to wait for
as long as six hours to vote in November. "And as time ticked by, her
concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks
like her would get to have their say," said the president. The comment
prompted a standing ovation and smiles from many in the audience, along
with complaints online that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was not
among those standing up.
So what is the president going
to do about it? He's...forming a commission. "I'm asking two long-time
experts in the field -- who, by the way, recently served as the top
attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney's campaign -- to lead
it," he said. "We can fix this. And we will. The American people demand
it, and so does our democracy."
As the president himself has acknowledged in the past, Washington
commissions are places where ideas tend to languish. That's not to say
that this commission won't issue concrete, useful recommendations, and
some states may take them up. But the track record isn't great.
Consider: After the 2000 election, the Election Assistance Commission
was created to help run elections; as the Washington Post reported, by 2012 it was "totally leaderless," with all four commissioner spots empty and no executive director.
Gun control legislation
This was the night's biggest emotional moment: Mr. Obama's invocation
of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot to death in Chicago - a
mile from the president's house - a week after performing at his
inauguration. Pendleton's parents were among the victims of gun violence
in attendance Tuesday night, and he said they were among those who
"deserve a vote" in Congress - a phrase he repeated six times while
invoking Gabrielle Giffords, and the people of Newtown, Conn., and
Aurora, Colo., along with others touched by gun violence.
president was emotional here, but he was also vague. He spent more time
pointing to recent gun tragedies than he did articulating specific
proposals. That is partly because his proposals are somewhat familiar at
this point. But it also has to do with the fact that the president
believes he can succeed in part by rallying the American people to his
cause. He pressured lawmakers to acknowledge the fact that "more than a
thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our
lives by a bullet from a gun" since Newtown by at least voting on something designed to stem the tide.
that mean gun control legislation is imminent? Hardly. The assault
weapons ban is almost certainly unlikely to pass, and even something
like universal background checks - which more than nine in 10 Americans
support - is no sure thing. But the president's appeal may well have
helped efforts to keep the issue alive in the halls of Congress - and
it's no small thing that Boehner was among those standing and clapping
when Mr. Obama called for a vote.
Preschool and education
the most unexpected passages in the speech was the president's proposal
to work "with states to make high-quality preschool available to every
single child in America." He made the case within the context of his
push for a more secure middle class, pointing to studies that show that
in Georgia and Oklahoma, where which prioritize early childhood
education, "students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade
level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of
The president didn't stop there, either:
He also called for a shift to more vocational training for high school
students, with a particular focus on high-tech areas like computers and
engineering. He compared the American education system unfavorably to
Germany, where there is a "focus on graduating their high school
students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our
community colleges." He also called for colleges to help keep costs down
so that students do not graduate with crippling debt.
this last issue, he had a concrete proposal: For Congress to pass the
Higher Education Act, which tied federal aid for colleges to
affordability and value. On the other issues, however, the president
seemed largely to be trying to push a national conversation. For high
schools, he said merely that he was "announcing a new challenge" for
them to better prepare students for the high-tech sector. It may not
translate to direct federal action, but for education reformers it did
mean a welcome spotlight that could help kick start more innovation at
the state and local level.