State of the Union speech: what to expect on the issues

This State of the Union address will cover the waterfront, from jobs to Afghanistan, but presidents always throw in a few new nuggets. Obama's big theme this year is income inequality. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama works at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 27, ahead of Tuesday night's State of the Union speech.

The president’s annual State of the Union address, delivered to a joint session of Congress, is often compared with a laundry list: a little of this, a little of that, all thrown into a big tumbler.

Indeed, for some second-tier Cabinet departments and obscure government agencies, it can be the only opportunity all year to get a shout-out for your pet project. White House officials face intense lobbying each year in the run-up to SOTU, as the biggest speech of the year is affectionately called. Some items make the cut, some don’t.

But among the larger themes, we already have a good idea of what President Obama will address. Here’s a score card for Tuesday night’s speech, airing at 9 p.m. Eastern.

• Inequality. Mr. Obama has referred to growing income inequality, and a lack of upward mobility by the lower and middle classes, as “the defining challenge of our time.” Critics say he is engaging in “class warfare,” but Obama is undaunted – and likely sees this populist message as central to Democrats’ chances in the fall midterms.

As he did last year, the president will call on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. But this year, he’s going for a higher minimum – from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 over two years. And to spur Congress on, Obama will announce that he plans to sign an executive order requiring workers hired under new or renewed federal contracts be paid a higher minimum wage, at least $10.10 an hour. He will also, once again, call on Congress to extend long-term unemployment benefits.

• Jobs. Obama will acknowledge that the current unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, though declining, is still too high. More ominously, the US labor participation rate – the workforce’s share of people who are either working or looking for a job – is at a 35-year low. But he will highlight actions he has taken, and plans to take, to boost employment.

One such initiative, announced in 2012, aims to create 45 “manufacturing hubs” around the country, public-private partnerships aimed at spurring innovation and boosting middle-class incomes. Lacking funding from Congress, Obama has had to scale back his goal. But using repurposed federal funds, two are completed, and two are in the pipeline. Earlier this month, the president visited the new hub in Raleigh, N.C., and this could win a line in the SOTU.

• Obamacare.  Obama can hardly mention his signature domestic program, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), without acknowledging the terrible problems in the rollout last year. But don’t expect him to dwell on it. Instead, he will highlight the fact that now works and other strides – including the 3 million (and counting) Americans who have signed up for coverage on government-run health-insurance exchanges, as well as the millions more who have newly enrolled in Medicaid. He will remind viewers of the popular elements of the ACA, including a ban on excluding people with health problems from coverage. And he will remind Republicans that he rejects any efforts to defund, weaken, or repeal the ACA.

• Immigration. This is the one big policy area where politically polarized Washington might, repeat might, be able to find common cause this year. Republicans know they have to act on the issue of America’s 11 million illegal immigrants, many of them from south of the border, if they hope to attract significant Latino votes in the future.

After the Senate approved comprehensive reform last June, House Republicans announced they preferred a piecemeal approach, through smaller bills. Obama has said he’s ready to go along, as long as a path to citizenship for undocumented people is in the mix. Watch him extend a hand of cooperation to Republicans in Tuesday's speech.

Immigration activists want Obama to act unilaterally to halt deportations, but such a move would poison this small area of bipartisan hope. In addition, Obama insists he does not have such power, and must follow the Constitution.

• Climate change. Obama will have to thread the needle on this one. His longstanding energy policy is “all of the above” – from fossil fuels to green technologies. Environmentalists, a key Democratic constituency, want him to place more limits on fossil fuels in a transition toward more clean energy, as 18 groups said in a Jan. 16 letter to the president. Obama adviser John Podesta pushed back, defending the steps the president has taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SOTU is an opportunity for Obama to provide more assurances to environmentalists, and possibly announce next steps, but he has to be careful not to alienate fossil fuel industries, analysts say. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency is to propose emissions standards for existing coal-fired plants. Rules for new plants were proposed last September.

The world is also watching to see where the Obama administration goes with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a lightning rod in the climate-change debate. There’s been no hint a decision is forthcoming, but if it were announced during SOTU, that would be big.

• Education. Both early childhood education and college affordability fit into Obama’s larger theme of income inequality and upward mobility, and they will definitely occupy space in the SOTU. More and earlier education equals more and better job opportunities down the road, the thinking goes. In last year’s SOTU, Obama proposed universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, at a cost of $75 billion, but legislation has stalled.

Still, some states boosted their early-education budgets, and Congress threw in $1 billion for Early Head Start, a federal program for children up to the age of 3. Obama is expected to take that momentum and renew his push for universal pre-K.

Afghanistan, Iran, and NSA. During Obama’s first presidential campaign, he promised to extract the US from two costly wars, those in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the year that he can check off those two goals, as US troops end their 13-year military involvement in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. The Iraq war ended in 2011. Obama is likely to put a punctuation mark on these milestones Tuesday night.

Diplomatic efforts over Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war are ongoing, with US involvement, but Obama is not likely to dwell on them in the 2014 SOTU. Both are in delicate phases, with most of the action behind the scenes.

The National Security Agency snooping flap, which broke open in May 2013, may get a cursory mention, but if so, don’t expect Obama to break any new ground beyond his Nov. 17 speech. Polls show the speech, in which he outlined changes to the NSA’s data collection program, didn’t register much with the public. We’re guessing he does not want to come back to an uncomfortable subject so soon. We’re willing to make one bet: that he won’t mention Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked documents on the surveillance program to the press, as he did on Nov. 17. 

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