Characterizing 2014 as a year of action, President Obama addressed difficulties with Congress and framed economic and social issues in terms of equality of opportunity in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
Obama introduced his call for a year of action, a nod to a notoriously inactive 2013 in Congress, immediately after his anecdotal introduction. After highlighting economic progress and commending teachers, entrepreneurs, auto–workers and farmers for their dedication and results, Obama drew subtle contrast to one group of workers who have not been productive: Congress.
“When our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people,” Obama said. However, Obama answered Americans' concerns about dysfunctional government by reminding citizens that they “make the state of our union strong.”
After calling for compromise, Obama framed his economic themes in terms of equality of opportunity. While a recent hot topic has been income inequality, Obama used “American Dream” rhetoric and focused more on creating opportunities.
Tim Barouch, a professor of communication studies, said he noticed Obama using a strategy of framing policy agenda items as consistent with Republican values as well, such as an emphasis on hard work and responsibility in success.
“Here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams,” Obama said.
“He framed [income equality] as less of the idea of taking from the rich or creating what some cynics might called class warfare to align it more with the idea of upward mobility,” Barouch said, shifting to the idea of an open future, in line with traditional American values.
Weinberg junior Adam Roth, a member of College Democrats, said he hopes to see education properly addressed after the address. Obama touched on making student loans manageable, adequately preparing students for the new economy and early childhood education.
Transitioning on opportunity, Obama then moved to discuss economic improvements, calling for closing of tax loopholes and for Congress to specifically pass infrastructure legislation this summer. Emphasizing the need for action, Obama asked Congress directly to address several policies, while reminding his audience that he would take executive action when necessary and act without Congress. In several instances, Obama referred to action he would take in the form of executive orders, adding Congress should help, but that he would do so regardless.
Weinberg junior Rebecca Schieber, president of College Republicans, said she was disappointed with the emphasis on executive orders to deal with frustration toward Congress.
“I personally think the presidency has grown much too powerful under presidents of all parties and it is a danger to our constitution and our system of checks and balances,” Schieber said. Sandy Shan, a political science graduate student, said Obama’s indicated resoluteness to act unilaterally was not unexpected, but Shan emphasizes the U.S. system is “characterized by ‘separated institutions sharing powers.’”
“Such words as 'act on my own' may be mere rhetorical devices serving to push the Congress to pass the bills that are in line with the president's own preferences,” Shan said.
Obama also announced he would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 federal contract workers through an executive order. Graduate political science student Sean Diament said that the president hinted at working to shape policy without Republican’s support, “such as trying to streamline bureaucracy, conserve federal lands, work with businesses to train workers, assemble a coalition to create universal pre-K, create a new type of affordable and stable IRA (myRA), deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and limit the ubiquity of drone strikes in foreign lands.”
With education and economic issues, Obama focused especially on technology, research and science. In terms of how Obama would achieve such goals, he focused on partnerships between the public and private sector, which Barouch noted demonstrated a bipartisan appeal.
Leading from the economy and a push for innovation, Obama mentioned progress toward energy independence, citing natural gas as a main factor in the success.
“My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities,” Obama said.
Notably, Obama declared “climate change is a fact” as part of his environmental push.
On a less divisive issue, immigration, Obama asked to get immigration reform done in 2014. Focusing on jobs, Obama announced a reform on training programs by Vice President Joe Biden to train and match Americans with jobs that need to be filled. Speaking directly to Congress, Obama asked for unemployment insurance benefits to be restored. Several Democratic legislators wore blue ribbons in support of extending those benefits.
In social issues, Obama asked business and government to come together and “give every woman the opportunity she deserves.” Noting Republicans attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama emphasized the success in dealing with pre–existing conditions and urged Americans to sign up. To Congress, Obama said, “the American people aren’t interested in re–fighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up.”
Moving to service and foreign policy, Obama explained the more limited presence the U.S. will have in Afghanistan after 2014, reaffirmed support for the opposition in Syria and diplomacy with Iran and emphasized that “America must move off a permanent war footing.” On related security, Obama briefly touched on reforming surveillance programs.
In recognition of military service and of the determination Americans value, Obama told the story of Cory Remsburg, who was in the audience and “nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan” on his 10th deployment.
Remsburg received a standing ovation and Obama reconnected Remsburg’s qualities with the strong character of the nation. “Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged,” Obama said. “But for more than 200 years we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress."