Obama's State of the Union address both bold and modest

Little in the president's State of the Union address was new – he's touched on the ideas many times before – but he didn't seem to be in a mood to bow to Republicans.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union laid out an expansive vision for government efforts to help boost the American middle class, called upon Congress to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform, announced that the US effort in Afghanistan will end next year, and made an emotional plea for greater restrictions on firearms that invoked the heartache bullets have wrought in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; Blacksburg, Va.; and every other town in the nation touched by gun violence.

The speech was modest in the sense that it touched upon many of the president’s longstanding proposals, as opposed to new, sweeping initiatives.

As he did in the campaign, Mr. Obama offered some reductions in the nation’s big health-care entitlement programs in exchange for raising more revenues by closing tax “loopholes.” He repeated his push to raise the minimum wage, this time to $9 an hour, instead of the $9.50 per hour he asked for in 2008 as president-elect. The president called for preschool to be affordable for all US parents, and said the nation needed to revamp its high schools to better prepare students for jobs in the burgeoning high-tech economy.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” said Obama.

But the address was bold in another sense: a reelected chief executive did not appear in the mood to bow in the direction of the other party. While he refrained from criticizing Republicans by name and generally steered clear of obvious partisan shots, he outlined a government-centric approach to improving the US that could have been compiled from 2012 stump speeches.

That’s the theme Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida hit in his GOP response.

“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them,” said Senator Rubio.

So what big questions did Obama’s outline of his 2013 agenda raise? Here are a few quick reactions.

WILL HE GET GUN VOTES? Perhaps the most emotional part of the president’s speech was his call for each of his major gun-control proposals to receive a vote in Congress. That would include a possible ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks, and more federal laws against the transfer of weapons to criminals, among other things.

“Each of those proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice ... the families of Newtown deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” said Obama.

WHAT DOES HE WANT ON CLIMATE CHANGE? The president cited the scientific consensus on climate change and noted that the weather seems to be notably changing around us. Then he urged Congress to act on a “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on a few years ago.”

If Congress doesn’t act, he said, he’ll use executive authority to do what he can to limit greenhouse gas emissions and lower use of fossil fuels.

The “market-based solution” he referred to was a so-called “cap and trade” approach to a private market in carbon emissions. Senator McCain (R) of Arizona is no longer in favor of working on that sort of approach and Senator Lieberman is now ex-Senator Lieberman. Change in this area almost certainly will have to come from the White House.

WILL OBAMA TELL CONGRESS MORE ABOUT DRONE STRIKES? To be clear, the president said nothing explicit about the use of unmanned aircraft to attack terror suspects. The word “drone” did not pass his lips. But he pledged to give lawmakers more insight into “direct actions” taken against the most dangerous terror suspects.

“In the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world,” said Obama.

Does this mean the administration might support a secret court of federal judges to oversee drone targets and operations? That’s an idea the some key members of Congress have floated in recent weeks and CIA director-designate John Brennan did not push back against the formation of such a court in his nomination hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.

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