The five key moments in Obama's State of the Union
President Obama delivers the 2013 State of the Union Address. / MANDEL NGAN
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 sacrifice.
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. "Let's be 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."
Yet 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.
Let's 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 action.
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The minimum wage
It 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.
So are 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.
Obama: On climate change, trust "overwhelming judgment of science"
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 environmental activists.
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
One 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."
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