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What Obama said and what it means

Charles Dharapak | Pool/Reuters
Charles Dharapak | Pool/Reuters
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (right) and Vice President Joe Biden (left) stand to applaud as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 12, 2013.
By The Washington Post, staff

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama spent considerable time on the economy but still addressed several other issues in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Here’s a breakdown of key issues mentioned, with relevant excerpts of the speech followed by analysis.


“In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.

“Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.

“That idea is even worse. Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms — otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations. …

“We should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected. …

“So 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. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”

Budget deficit: For the first time in Obama’s presidency, this year’s budget deficit is forecast to come in at less than $1 trillion. And it’s shrinking fast. For weeks now, the White House has been sending the message that the deficit problem is all but solved. But there’s still the matter of the “sequester,” deep automatic budget cuts that are set to hit the Pentagon and other federal agencies in two weeks, and other fiscal deadlines later this year that threaten to shut down the government and cause the Treasury to default.

Enough already: The president called on congressional Republicans to work with him to replace the sequester with a more sensible deficit-reduction plan that pursues two of their most important goals: reining in the cost of federal health programs and rewriting the tax code to get “rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.”

Medicare: It was not immediately clear whether the White House would sweeten this offer by putting new Medicare changes on the table, or by agreeing to a tax reform framework that would lower individual tax rates, as Republicans desire. A White House fact sheet released along with the speech suggested no fresh policy positions.

Let’s move on: Obama’s larger message seemed to be just that. The budget battles of the past two years have produced significant results. New projections show the rampant borrowing of the recession years is coming under control. The White House is willing to do more. But, Obama said, let’s stop governing by deadline and start a conversation focused as intently on improving the U.S. economy and people’s lives as on improving the government’s bottom line.

— Lori Montgomery


“To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require. But we also have to make sure that America remains a place where everyone who’s willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead.

“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

“Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made — putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

“Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

“And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

“In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

A reiteration: Obama devoted just a little over two minutes to immigration in his State of the Union address, but he used that time to reiterate the basic principles he and lawmakers have laid out in recent weeks — strengthening border control, creating a path to citizenship, cutting bureaucratic red tape and attracting highly skilled immigrant workers. He reminded Americans that there is agreement on both sides of the aisle about the need for an overhaul, and he reinforced the idea that immigration reform is connected to a stronger economy.

Call for bipartisanship: Obama introduced no new proposals, but he echoed a speech he made last month in Las Vegas in which he praised a bipartisan Senate proposal for immigration reform. In that speech, Obama did not offer a specific proposal of his own, preferring to let the bipartisan group lead the way, and he showed similar restraint in his State of the Union address. He may have calculated the dangers of tying such a proposal too closely to himself: In a new Washington Post poll, seven in 10 people said they would support a path to citizenship, but when the same question was asked with Obama’s name attached to it, support dropped precipitously, especially among Republican respondents.

The basics: Perhaps mindful of this, Obama quickly touched on the main tenets of immigration reform without adding anything new that would have distracted from or undermined the bipartisan tenor of the recent discussion. Casting immigration reform as “something that leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree on,” he appeared to be simply giving a nod to something already underway, saying, “Let’s get it done.”

— Tara Bahrampour

Gun control

“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. 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 they are tired of being outgunned.

“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than 1,000 birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.

“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. … Just three weeks ago, she was here … with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school. …

“Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote.”

Obama’s turn to gun control marked the emotional high point of the evening as he addressed the political realities of the debate. Noting that “overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment” are calling on Congress to find ways to limit gun violence, the president attempted to remind skeptical lawmakers of growing bipartisan support for gun-control measures.

Acknowledging ongoing negotiations, Obama listed three leading proposals in their order of public support — and the likelihood of passage in a divided Congress: mandating background checks for all gun purchases, making gun trafficking a federal crime, and a ban on military-style assault weapons. “Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” Obama said. But he did not endorse any specific proposal, nor did he explicitly use the term “assault-weapons ban.”

Instead, he invoked the support of law enforcement officials for a ban — a popular tactic among lawmakers sponsoring gun-control bills. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the lead sponsor of a renewed assault-weapons ban, was flanked by police chiefs and rank-and-file officers when she introduced her bill last month.

Among the proposals Obama listed, one mandating background checks with limited exceptions is popular among the public and lawmakers. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), is discussing a background check plan that would serve as the centerpiece of a bill to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by the end of the month. Senior aides say the bill is also likely to include language that would stiffen gun-trafficking laws and bolster federal funding for school security and mental health research.

The big question is whether Feinstein plans to have her assault-weapons ban added to the bill before it is voted on by the Judiciary Committee, or wait to have it amended to the measure once it reaches the Senate floor. Either way, congressional aides and close observers don’t expect Feinstein’s bill to be approved by the Senate.

— Ed O’Keefe

Foreign policy

“Our challenges don’t end with al-Qaida. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.

“Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands — because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.

“America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyberattacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private email. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

North Korea’s nuclear test earlier Tuesday prompted Obama’s blunt warning that the Stalininst state risks further sanctions and isolation if it does not negotiate. North Korea represents a foreign policy disappointment for Obama, who had hoped to bring the nation back to international talks and then to forge a better relationship with its new leader last year. Neither gambit worked.

Iran, a potential nuclear threat, received scant attention. In one sentence, Obama invited Iran to negotiate and threatened to do whatever he must to prevent an Iranian bomb if talks fail. Washington and its allies allege that Iran is pursuing a bomb at a pace that could yield a weapon during Obama’s second term. An international negotiating group is poised to meet with an Iranian team.

The unfinished business of the Arab Spring revolutions was lumped together in Obama’s pledge that the United States will “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy.” He promised to keep up pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Obama has said must leave office, and he reached out to the nascent political opposition. Obama, set to visit Israel next month, pledged “steadfast” backing of Israel’s security as it pursues what he called a “lasting peace.” He did not mention the Palestinians by name.

A bright spot in Obama’s first term was Burma, where a decades-long military junta has relinquished some power and opened economic doors to the United States and other trade partners and investors. Obama said he had seen “the power of hope” when visiting Aung San Suu Kyi in the home where the former dissident had once been confined under house arrest.

— Anne Gearan


“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance. …

“Four years ago, we started Race to the Top — a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math — the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future …

“Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my administration will release a new ‘College Scorecard’ that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

Early-childhood education: Obama proposed making preschool universal — available to every young child in the country. High-quality early-childhood education is seen by educators as especially important to help close the achievement gap between poor and privileged children, which has been demonstrated to exist in children as young as 3. Nearly half of 4-year-olds and 20 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state or federally funded preschool programs in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Those programs cost taxpayers about $5.5 billion, an average of about $5,000 per child in 2011. The president did not say how much it would cost to provide high-quality public preschool to every child, but some estimate that it would cost at least twice what taxpayers are now paying.

Race to the Top: The president wants to introduce another flavor of his signature education initiative, which would reward states that create high schools that teach technical skills in demand by today’s employers. The Obama administration has used competitive grants to an unprecedented degree, angering some members of Congress who argue that all states deserve a share of tax dollars.

Higher Education Act: The president is asking Congress to amend the law to require colleges to slow their tuition costs in order to qualify for federal grants. The law is due for reauthorization this year. Obama threatened this in his last State of the Union address, but failed to follow through. In the past decade, tuition and fees at private, nonprofit four-year colleges rose 2.4 percent beyond inflation, according to the College Board. College pricing and mounting student debt have fueled popular anger.

— Lyndsey Layton

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