5 State of the Union takeaways

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen.
Larry Downing/AP

With an eye toward the November midterm elections, President Obama on Tuesday night laid out a limited set of goals in his State of the Union address, focusing largely on the unfinished business of last year’s agenda.

The president embraced the themes and goals that Democrats are trumpeting on the campaign trail, such as equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage, softly chiding Congress for losing sight of these priorities. At the same time, he extended an open hand to Republicans, making clear he’s ready to work with them in the event they gain control the Senate in the fall. Ultimately, Mr. Obama seemed ready to cede the lofty calls for change he made in years past for a more realistic vision of continued, incremental progress.

2014 themes throughout

  Democrats seeking re-election in Congress plan to make a higher minimum wage a key issue this year, and Mr. Obama on Thursday night gave them their slogan: “Join the rest of the country,” he implored Congress, specifically urging them to back a Democratic bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. “Say yes. Give America a raise.”

At a time when Democrats are looking for any opportunity to accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women,” the president also dedicated a notable section of his speech to advocating for women. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” he said.

While advancing Democratic talking points, Mr. Obama also scolded Republicans for continuing to attack the Affordable Care Act -- something the GOP plans on doing into November. “I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles,” he said. “Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty.”

The president also lamented last year’s GOP-driven government shutdown. He brought congressional Democrats to their feet in applause when he said, “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.”

Extending an olive branch

While Mr. Obama called out Republicans for their continued Obamacare opposition, he clearly wants to maintain a working relationship with the GOP. He made a point of praising their good ideas and inspirational stories.

 The president nearly brought House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to tears -- though that’s not hard to do -- when he referenced the speaker’s humble upbringing and his own in the same breath.

“I believe, that 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,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s how... the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be president of the greatest nation on Earth.”

The president called out Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a rising GOP star, for putting forward ideas to enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). “Right now, it helps about half of all parents at some point,” he said. “But I agree with Republicans like Senator Rubio that it doesn’t do enough for single workers who don’t have kids.”

And even as the conservative wing of the Republican Party adamantly works against immigration reform efforts, Mr. Obama put a positive spin on the policy debate.

“Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted.  I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same,” he said. “So let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

Recycled ideas

Immigration reform was just one of several agenda items in Mr. Obama’s speech that we’ve heard before.

Mr. Obama appealed to the legislative branch to end tax incentives for companies that send jobs overseas, pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, and lift the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers from Guantanamo Bay, among other things.

“Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old,” Mr. Obama said at one point. “As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight.”

Even some of the executive actions he announced were continuations of policies Mr. Obama adopted earlier, such as launching new “manufacturing institutes.

A limited scope focused on incremental change

Given that it’s very likely Republicans will keep control of the House in 2014 and could win control of the Senate, Mr. Obama’s limited expectations for the next two years aren’t too surprising.

While perhaps not as inspiring as universal health care, goals like expanding the EITC are potentially achievable even with a GOP-led Congress. And as CBS News political director John Dickerson noted, the president is now focused on the lasting impact he can make with seemingly marginal policy changes. Mr. Obama said in a recent interview, “I suspect that Ronald Reagan, if you’d asked him, would not have considered the earned-income-tax-credit provision in tax reform to be at the top of his list of accomplishments. On the other hand, what the E.I.T.C. has done... has probably kept more people out of poverty than a whole lot of other government programs that are currently in place.”

In some cases, instead of offering specific reforms, Mr. Obama announced he will be convening a summit or creating a commission to further explore certain issues. For instance, he said, “Tonight, I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now.”

Less emphasis on certain thorny issues

In limiting the scope of his ambition, Mr. Obama only lightly touched on certain issues that have weighed heavily over Washington.

For instance, reducing gun violence was a key part of his 2013 State of the Union address, which was delivered just weeks after the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. This year, Mr. Obama dedicated just two sentences to the matter, making clear he doesn’t expect much from Congress.

“Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day,” he said. “I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say ‘we are not afraid,’ and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.”

Mr. Obama only briefly mentioned that he plans to work with Congress to reform surveillance programs, though he did deliver a major speech dedicated solely to that issue less than two weeks ago.

And a time when the U.S. is involved in precarious international negotiations, foreign policy matters took a clear backseat in the speech to domestic policy.