What wasn’t said in Obama’s State of the Union 2014

Analysis: President’s annual address to Congress left many wanting, especially those in need

President Barack Obama winks at first lady Michelle Obama before delivering his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
Gary Cameron/Reuters

Five days before fans of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks gather just a few hours' drive up I-95 for Super Bowl XLVIII, members of a tediously divided Congress gathered for their own annual cheer-and-jeer, also known as the State of the Union.

President Barack Obama began his speech with a narrative reminiscent of a halftime commercial. Spoken by a gravelly-voiced actor, the vignettes of a dedicated teacher, a generous entrepreneur and a hardworking farmer would have fit perfectly with sepia-toned shots of school desks and fields of waving wheat. Obama used these stories to illustrate that, because of the good citizens of the country, the state of the union is strong.

And the president felt he had some grounds for this claim:

The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world.

Click for more on the president's annual policy speech

This was evidence for predicting a "breakthrough year" if policymakers did the right things.

"After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on earth," Obama said.

But a cause for optimism is not the same thing as a call to action, and over the next 60-plus minutes, the president did much to demonstrate that the state of the union — or, more to the point, the state of the union's political machinery — is weak, and its leaders weak-willed.

The calls for sweeping change that seemed the hallmark of Obama's 2008 campaign and his first speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009 (not technically a SOTU) have all but vanished from his second-term rhetoric. In the 2014 edition of his annual address, the president praised an 11th-hour budget deal that "undoes some of last year's severe cuts," adding, "In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together."

Hard to imagine the coaches in Sunday's game imploring players to not lose the first half by so much and see if maybe they could find a way to advance the ball some in the second half. Not exactly "Win one for the Gipper."

Gone are pledges for anything as sweeping as holding Wall Street accountable for crimes that led to the financial collapse, or grand federal plans to stem the mortgage crisis and stimulate the economy — all tentpoles of Obama's early speeches.

On Tuesday, the president acknowledged that inequality has deepened and wages have stagnated despite soaring corporate profits, but his response was something short of a rallying cry: "Our job is to reverse these trends. It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything."

Instead of a plan to solve long-term joblessness, the address simply called for Congress to renew the extension of unemployment insurance that had expired just before the end of last year. Instead of any directed stimulus or a pledge to expand federal work programs, Obama asked Congress to help close tax loopholes that incentivize employers to ship jobs overseas. Instead of an urgent shift in energy policy to combat a fast-growing climate crisis, the president painted the use of natural gas, "extracted safely," as a transition fuel and used the simple statement that "climate change is a fact" as a crowning applause line.

Even when it came to the Affordable Care Act, considered by so many the signature achievement of the president's tenure, Obama touted the program as is. Gone was any talk that with this plan, America was building "a starter home" on its way to truly universal health coverage and better control over medical costs.

The toolbox of the nominal leader of the free world also seemed somewhat short on levers. The "phone and pen" authority touted by surrogates in the weekend run-up to Tuesday's speech consisted of calls to CEOs for voluntary regulations and initiatives, and executive orders covering limited parts of the federal government. Voluntary rules are just that — with little way to track any compliance — and executive orders are not only limited in scope but subject to the whims of the next administration. Neither does the job of national laws and federal regulations.

Perhaps more disheartening to his support base, Obama offered little by way of policy proposals even to meet the speech's relatively modest goals.

The president chose only to hike the minimum wage for federal workers in future contracts, and chose a number — $10.10 — that might trip off the tongue, but is shy of what most advocates call a "living wage," a number that would provide a modicum of long-term economic security for the employees of a growing service sector.

The "myRA" starter retirement plan might provide an unremarkable addition to the collection of income- and tax-based retirement savings options, but it offers nothing for people who need every penny of their income for present-day expenses — and does nothing to expand the safety net for those without dependable lifetime employment.

And the "all of the above" energy strategy once again praised by the president Tuesday leaves energy policy propping up old, environmentally dangerous technologies at the expense of real investment in transformative programs. It is less a plan that makes choices than the absence of a plan and a reluctance to choose.

Absent, also, were any meaningful references to the growing ranks of America's poor. The middle class are the mainstay of contemporary American political discourse; the poor don't make it into the conversation — as if discussing their plight is too controversial for our divided body politic.

There was, however, one concrete offering for those looking to the speech to kick off congressional midterm election campaigns.

"It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode," said Obama as he called on government and the private sector to "give every woman the opportunity she deserves."

While the president avoided addressing specific attacks on women's rights in recent years, from challenges to reproductive health at the state and congressional levels to failures in fully funding social programs that overwhelmingly benefit disadvantaged women, his rhetorical turn to supporting and empowering women could not be missed. And it was obvious that the head of the Democratic Party was delineating a stark difference from Republicans for voters weighing House and Senate choices come November.

Still, a president who launched his tenure proclaiming a message of "hope" seemed, in his 2014 State of the Union address, to have little concrete to offer many millions of Americans forced to make tough choices every day in order to get by. Instead, the speech offered a reminder that making tough choices is not the hallmark of politics these days in the nation's capital.

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