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State of the Union Highlights: Big Ideas or Empty Promises?

While the State of the Union address always has the attention of the nation, President Obama’s latest stood in contrast to the tough year his administration faced. You know, the one that saw the government shut down, an unproductive Congress, and the troubled rollout of his signature health care plan. Of course, the State of the Union is the most deliberately crafted speech and was delivered by one of the best oratory Presidents in recent memory.

The speech—which clocked in at just over an hour—was packed with the hopes of President who feels as if he can no longer rely on the legislature. From the climate to the temperature of the economy, from immigration to retirement planning the President suggested that he was tired of waiting for them to get their legislative acts together and said he plans to use his Executive authority to address these problems. “America does not stand still,” He said, “and neither will I.”

The President called for action on the immigration issue, where a bipartisan bill died on arrival in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. He also resurrected the idea of retirement accounts (in the form of a government bond) that has appeared in a number of budget requests but has never been acted on by the legislature.

With respect to the economy there is very little a President can do—yet still the narratives on both sides insist that it lives and dies by White House policy—and President Obama relied on tried-and-true aspirations that rarely manifest in reality. He called for more high-tech jobs and called for revisions to the tax code that are generally accepted by both parties (specifically an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit). Although his proposal to raise the minimum wage to over $10 has met with resistance from both sides.

Responding to his critics, President Obama also suggested that the U.S. reduce its surveillance programs and limit the use of drones. The speech ended with an emotional acknowledgement of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg who had lost vision in one eye as a result of the war in Afghanistan. Yet, the President doubled-down on his desire to leave “a small force of Americans” in Afghanistan for training and “counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda.” Conspicuous by its absence was any reference to the controversy surrounding the cutting of military pensions.

The speech itself was a success; of course it is almost impossible for it to not have been. What bears watching is the President’s use of Executive power to address these issues. The expansion of White House powers has continued for at least the past 30 years, but rarely has a President faced such a hostile and unproductive Congress. Perhaps his threat of acting alone will spark action in the legislature, but with the mid-term elections upon us this seems unlikely. 


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