Did Obama keep last year's State of the Union promises?

President Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address to a joint session of the US Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol on February 12, 2013 in Washington as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner look on. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Fresh off a tough re-election campaign, President Obama filled his 2013 State of the Union address with a long list of priorities from a leader who had the backing of more than half of the American public.

It didn’t take long for a combination of crises and Congress to bring his agenda to a halt. Gun control couldn’t even get enough backers to make it out of the Democratic Senate. Immigration reform did, but then stalled in the House. A wave of problems, from the IRS targeting of conservative groups to revelations about the National Security Agency’s spying programs to the flawed rollout of put the president on the defensive.

    The last several weeks have seen a flurry of activity from the White House as they rush to check unfinished business from 2013 off the list. Earlier this month, he announced that Raleigh, N.C., was being designated as a high-tech manufacturing hub, which stemmed directly from a promise in his last State of the Union. Last week, he squeezed in a meeting with the Commission on Election Administration so they could make recommendations on ways to shorten voting lines, another follow up from the 2013 speech.

    Given the administration’s recent pledge to focus on executive actions that don’t require congressional approval, it’s possible that Mr. Obama’s to-do list for the coming year will be more achievable than that of 2013, which was heavily reliant on lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Here’s a look some of the pledges in the 2013 State of the Union address, and how the president did:

    Gun Control

    The pledge: “Overwhelming majorities of Americans -- Americans who believe in the Second Amendment -- have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals.  Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.  Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.” 

    The progress: Mr. Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address came just weeks after a horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The violence against a group of children seemed like the most likely impetus to bring the two parties together on a controversial issue, but a year after the shooting, not a single gun control law has passed Congress. Mr. Obama was able to sign a series of executive orders that makes federal background check data more widely available, tracing seized guns, preparing for active shooter situations in schools and other institutions and more aggressively prosecuting gun crimes.


    The pledge: “Let’s set party interests aside and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. Let’s agree right here, right now to keep the people’s government open, and pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”

    The progress: On this promise, there was both big failure and big success. In October, a standoff between the president and congressional Republicans over Obamacare funding led to a 16-day government shutdown. As part of the deal to end the shutdown, however, Democrats and Republicans agreed to craft a bipartisan budget deal in December. Against the odds, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., were able to write a two-year budget that won approval from a sufficient number of lawmakers to give Washington its first taste of a normal budget process in years. That’s a victory – but one for Congress, since President Obama had no hand in the negotiations to end the government shutdown (that was the work of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.) or in crafting the budget.

    Climate Change

    The pledge: “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.   I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy… I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.  If a nonpartisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we.” 

    The progress: Surprising no one, Congress didn’t even take a stab at bipartisan climate change legislation. So in June, the president directed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the carbon emissions from new power plants, and pressed ahead with those rules in September despite protests from the industry and Republicans. The Energy Security Trust he proposed quickly died on Capitol Hill.


    The pledge: “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

    The progress: The results of the 2012 election, in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney performed dismally among Hispanic voters, made it seem like Congress would finally be able to take bipartisan action on an issue with a long history of failure.  The first half of the year went well for advocates of a comprehensive reform plan that included a pathway to citizenship: eight senators came together to craft such a bill, which passed the Senate with a healthy bipartisan vote. The measure died a slow death in the House, as the Republican leadership first pledged they would not take up the Senate bill and then refused to work with the Senate on an immigration bill at all. Mr. Obama has renewed his calls for action in the last few months, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, holds most of the cards on the issue. And the president is in an increasingly perilous situation as frustrated activists call on him to suspend deportations, which Mr. Obama has said he cannot legally do.

    Minimum Wage

    The pledge: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour….here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year -- let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”

    The progress: The president will announce at Tuesday's State of the Union that he will sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour.  Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., wrote a bill that would raise the minimum wage for all to $10.10 per hour. Mr. Obama supports the bill, but it has gone nowhere yet in the Senate. In a speech last December, the president called the combination of growing income inequality and a lack of upward mobility “the defining challenge of our time” and pledged to take steps to address both. Raising the minimum wage is one issue he and the Democrats plan to highlight ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.


    • Rebecca Kaplan

      Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for