Here are six important takeaways from President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
The theme of Obama’s one-hour speech was unmistakable: economic populism.
He spoke about taxing the wealthy to help the poor and middle class, raising the minimum wage, offering new tax credits for child care, providing free community college, cutting mortgage premiums and mandating paid leave.
“Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change,” he said. “That means helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”
The focus isn’t necessarily a new one for this president, but it does provide his party a much-wanted platform in the 2016 presidential elections. Democrats hope to highlight a striking difference with Republicans who now control both the Senate and the House of Representatives despite losing the White House in 2008 and 2012.
But even several top Republicans, including the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, have said they plan to make economic populism a centerpiece of their potential campaigns.
Economy growing, for many
Obama said the economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999, the U.S. unemployment rate is lower than it was before the financial crisis and businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs over the past five years.
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits,” he said. “Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
For the first time since 2009, more people think Obama has improved the economy rather than hurt it, according a Pew Research Center poll released last week.
How lame a lame duck?
In recent weeks, he’s begun efforts aimed at easing smog-related pollution, taken executive actions on immigration and climate change, vowed to have the federal government regulate Internet access and said the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
His tone did not change Tuesday.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” Obama read from his speech. And then added with a chuckle, “I know ’cause I won both of ’em.”
Islamic State terrorists
Months after launching a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State terrorist group, Obama is asking Congress to authorize the bombings in Iraq and Syria.
Republicans and even some Democrats had argued for months that Obama needed lawmakers’ authority to target the organization also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed an authorization of the use of military force, but the full Senate never considered it.
While Obama does not agree that he needs authorization, he asked Congress to “show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
After appearing to snub one of its closest allies, Obama went out of his way to mention the terrorist attack at a French satirical newspaper in Paris that killed 12 people this month.
“We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists – from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris,” he said to applause.
The White House conceded last week that it should have sent a high-ranking U.S. official to Paris for a massive rally to demonstrate U.S. support in the aftermath of the mass shooting.
Just before the speech began, the White House announced that Obama had spoken by phone Tuesday with President François Hollande to talk about the investigation into the attack and to reaffirm his commitment to provide “whatever assistance the French government needs.”
Obama spent an extraordinarily long time – longer than his most significant foreign policy initiatives, including Cuba and Iran – talking about how lawmakers should break a recent pattern of dysfunction and partisan bickering.
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different,” he said.
“A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives,” he said.
His message came after he appeared focused on proposals he knew Congress would not support, starting with a $320 billion tax increase and increasing the minimum wage, and threatened to veto several Republican plans, tying funding of the Department of Homeland Security to Obama’s executive actions on immigration, proposing new sanctions against Iran and gutting the health care law.
And he criticized one of their top priorities – passing the Keystone XL pipeline – by saying, “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.”