On The Issues: Analyzing Obama's Speech

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. i i

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

NPR reporters analyze what the president said (and didn't) about the issues they cover:

Jobs

Faced with painfully slow U.S. job growth and a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, President Obama spent the lion's share of his State of the Union speech talking about jobs and job creation. He mentioned jobs in at least 20 separate paragraphs. The president noted the economy is growing again, and stock prices and corporate profits are up sharply. But he said that's not the only way Americans measure progress. "We measure progress by the success of our people," he said, "by the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer."

But the president said that in a globalized world economy, the question is "whether new jobs and industries take root in the U.S. rather than somewhere else around the world." To insure jobs come to Americans, he said, "We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."

The president again focused on job creation through the development of clean energy industries (read more). He called for an end to billions of dollars in tax subsidies for oil companies, saying, "I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own." He added: "So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's." He set a goal of producing 80 percent of America's electricity with clean energy by 2035.

Obama also called for a cut in America's corporate tax rate to support economic growth, competitiveness and investment in the United States. It's now the highest in the world, though American companies pay less than many other nations because of loopholes and tax subsidies. The president suggested eliminating many of those tax breaks to allow overall rates to fall.

Much of the job creation envisioned by the president would come from rebuilding America's "crumbling" infrastructure. Saying that to attract businesses, America needs "the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods and information," he called for investment not only in roads and bridges, but also in high-speed rail and the Internet. He said his goal was to give 4 out of 5 Americans access to high-speed rails within 25 years (read more). Within five years, he said, 98 percent of Americans should have access to the next generation of high-speed wireless.

Mindful of Republicans' vow to cut government spending, the president offered no dollar figure for additional spending on his 21st century infrastructure vision. He did try to answer the Republicans by extending his proposed freeze on domestic spending from three years to five. That would save $400 billion over the next decade, according to the president. But the freeze would cover only 12 percent of federal spending and make only a small dent in the nation's budget problems.

— John Ydstie

Health Care

President Obama tried to lighten the mood over the nasty health care debate by telling the assembled supporters and opponents, "I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law."

But he seemed completely serious when he said that while he was willing to discuss changes that would "improve" the measure — starting with repeal of a funding provision that would impose new paperwork requirements on small businesses — he remains steadfastly opposed to a full-blown repeal of the sort approved by the House last week.

"What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition," the president said. "I'm not willing to tell James Howard, a brain cancer patient from Texas, that his treatment might not be covered." (Howard was a guest in the first lady's box.)

But the president did reach out to Republicans on other health issues, particularly deficit reduction. He offered further, unspecified, reductions to the Medicare and Medicaid programs beyond those in the health law. And he said he would also look at "medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits." On the other hand, the White House fact sheet on the speech mentioned support for "state reforms of medical malpractice systems," rather than the federal damage award caps that Republicans want and most Democrats oppose.

Meanwhile, in the official Republican response to the president, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was to say that Republicans remain committed to erasing the health law from the books entirely, because it "is accelerating our country toward bankruptcy."

— Julie Rovner

Earmarks

"And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren't larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: If a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it," President Obama said.

Obama's only veto threat was against any bills containing congressional earmarks. His opposition to such congressionally directed spending, often for pet projects in members' districts, dates back to his days in the Senate. But as president, Obama has good reason to oppose earmarks: He prefers having his own federal agencies decide how best to spend the money Congress appropriates. By taking that stance, the president appears to be making common cause with congressional Republicans. House Republicans have sworn off all earmarks, and their Senate counterparts have adopted a non-binding resolution to do the same. So the president is essentially putting his own party on notice about earmarks. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — himself a seasoned earmarker — is having none of it. "I think it's the wrong thing to do," he told reporters at the Capitol. "It's a lot of pretty talk, but it is only giving the president more power. He's got enough power already."

— David Welna

Iraq And Afghanistan

Domestic issues, not foreign policy or national security, were priorities in President Obama's speech, as they were last year. His discussion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was relatively brief and as positive as possible, with a renewed commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops. "The war in Iraq is coming to an end," Obama said, citing the reduction of violence and the installation of a new government there. In Afghanistan, he said, fewer Afghans "are under the control of the [Taliban] insurgency."

In fact, casualties in Iraq have declined dramatically, both for U.S. troops (60 killed in 2010 versus 904 in 2007) and for Iraqi civilians (4,036 in 2010, down from 24,677 in 2007, according to the independent Iraq Body Count project). But the level of violence in Iraq remains high, and the seeds of renewed sectarian strife and political instability have been planted with the return to Iraq of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Iran-backed Shiite militia was responsible for much anti-Sunni violence in earlier years.

In Afghanistan, the situation is even less clear. The independent Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) reported that in the last quarter of 2010, Taliban attacks declined in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the focus of the U.S. troop surge. But attacks in those provinces, according to the most recent ANSO quarterly report, had increased dramatically earlier in the year. For all of 2010, insurgent attacks in Afghanistan increased by the highest annual growth rate ever recorded, according to ANSO data, and the group reported that the Taliban insurgency secured new strongholds in the north, west and east of the country.

U.S. commanders nevertheless remain confident that success in Afghanistan is still possible. Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell, who commands U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, predicted earlier this month that Afghan security forces would soon be in charge of 40 percent of the Afghan population in the portion of the country under his control. "If we can get to 40 percent, that's when we start making this irreversible momentum," he said.

— Tom Gjelten

Clean Energy

The president wants Congress to help him set a new goal of producing 80 percent of America's electricity from clean energy by 2035. He includes wind, solar, nuclear, clean coal and natural gas as all playing a part. He stresses that a new clean electricity standard will stimulate a market for innovative technologies and will create green jobs.

There aren't many details available yet for how this new standard would work. But one thing is clear: House Republicans are unlikely to embrace any plan that would force a switch from coal, which now generates about half of the country's electricity.

Last year, the president urged Congress to pass a climate change bill to accomplish the same goal, but he dropped that strategy after what he called his "shellacking" in the last election. In his speech, the president didn't mention global warming as a reason for switching to clean energy.

— Elizabeth Shogren

Transportation

The president's exhortation to modernize the nation's transportation infrastructure — in particular, its railways and highways — was made to a Congress that has been unable for the last year and a half to reauthorize the National Highway and Transportation Safety Act. This is largely because revenues from the Highway Trust Fund — derived from the federal gasoline tax — don't even cover the cost of projects already in the pipeline, and lawmakers are reluctant to make up the difference from general funds. They're just as unwilling to raise the gasoline tax, which has been 18.3 cents per gallon since 1993. Because cars are more fuel efficient these days, revenues have fallen further. The president did not propose any way to cover that gap.

President Obama also said he wants 80 percent of the population to have access to high speed rail within 25 years. Building such railways costs about $45 million per mile, money the private sector appears unlikely to invest. The last big stimulus bill included $8 billion in seed money for high-speed rail, but it's divided among many regions. And the new Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio — two states that got some of that seed money — are now turning down the funds. The president seemed to tacitly acknowledge what a heavy lift it may be to build such rail lines. While he praised China for its fast trains, he later alluded to how simple it is for certain central governments that want a railroad to get one, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. By contrast, he said, "We will argue about everything. The cost. The details. Every letter of the law."

— David Welna

What He Didn't Mention: Guns

Glaringly absent from the president's address (at least to those who were hoping to hear something on the subject) was any mention of guns. The president who campaigned promising to reinstate the lapsed ban on assault weapons remained mum on arms restrictions, even as he recognized those who'd been shot in Tucson. The bullets that were fired at them, police say, were packed in a high capacity magazine that had been outlawed under that lapsed assault weapons ban. Democrats in both the House and Senate recently introduced bills to reinstate that ban; tonight's speech was a high profile opportunity for the president to throw his weight behind that legislation. He chose not to take it.

— David Welna

Updated at 11:37 p.m. ET More analysis has come in from NPR reporters:

Education

President Obama said the United States must "out-educate, out-innovate and out-build" the rest of the world. In that context, he said, the United States must target its investments in areas such as education.

He pointed to nations like China and India, which can compete in the global economy in part because they start educating children "earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science." (Read more about Obama's comparisons.)

His point was underscored by U.S. Education Department findings that show just how much American students have slipped in science — two-thirds lack even the most basic knowledge. The president also pointed out that the United States places ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

"To compete, higher education must be within reach of every American," the president said.

Across the country, meanwhile, states have slashed funding for higher education, forcing community colleges to cap enrollment, eliminate programs, lay off faculty and raise tuition.

Obama also said too many elementary and secondary schools are not performing well. "That's why instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top," the president said. "To all 50 states, we said, 'If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money.'"

That money — about $4.5 billion — went to 11 states and the District of Columbia. To get it, the winners agreed to such measures as closing down struggling schools and adopting tests tied to rigorous standards.

One area in which the president has found a great deal of Republican support is in his effort to improve teacher quality — and take on the teachers' unions on issues like merit pay.

"We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones," the president said.

But otherwise, the message from Republicans was clear: Education has to be on the chopping block. Republicans are proposing a 20 percent cut that administration officials say would "decimate" school reform, as well as access to college.

— Claudio Sanchez

Immigration

The president's call for Congress to "take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration" is likely more an expression of his own support for that issue than a recognition of lawmakers' willingness to do so. Even before Republicans took control of the House, there was not one Republican in the Senate willing to join Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform — after South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham dropped his support. Until unemployment levels drop significantly, allowing undocumented foreigners to gain legal status is going to be a very tough sell in Congress.

— David Welna

Competitiveness

In calling for innovation, new industries and millions of jobs, President Obama said, "This is our generation's Sputnik moment." That reference to the time when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the first launch of a satellite was echoed at various points in his speech, with the president saying that other countries have moved ahead of the United States in some respects. He pointed out that the U.S. lead in infrastructure "has slipped." He said South Koreans have more Internet access than Americans, while countries in Europe and Russia "invest more in their roads and railways than we do." China, he noted, "is building faster trains and newer airports."

He made similar comparisons with respect to education issues, noting that in South Korea, "teachers are known 'as nation builders.'"

— Tom Gjelten

Electric Cars

The president's goal of a million electric cars on the road by 2015 would definitely be quite a stretch.

David E. Cole, an auto industry expert from the University of Michigan, says he's very optimistic about electric cars, but reaching the president's target would be "very, very difficult." That's because of the high cost of the lithium batteries that charge the cars.

Despite high price tags, demand for electric vehicles has been strong. Nissan says it has 20,000 people on a waiting list for its 100 percent electric Leaf. And GM recently announced that due to strong public interest, it would increase production of its plug-in hybrid electric Volt cars to 45,000 in 2012.

But it's a long way from tens of thousands to a million.

— Elizabeth Shogren

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