The State of the Union is really two speeches in one. First, it's a description of where the country is at this moment in time (and if you're interested in that, here are 33 charts and maps that tell the tale). But second — and more importantly — it lays out the president's agenda to address the nation's most serious problems.
In this post, Vox has pulled apart those two threads of the speech: these are the policy proposals Obama laid out — both what he said and what the underlying policy would do.
What Obama said: "I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave."
What his policy does: Obama wants Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would give workers the opportunity to accrue up to seven days of paid sick leave. He also wants states to set up family and medical-leave programs. The US is one of a small minority of countries worldwide that don't guarantee paid sick leave and stands alone among high-income countries for not having paid maternity leave. And these policies would disproportionately affect women. More here.
What Obama said: "Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work."
What the policy does: Full-time, year-round working women are still paid only 78 percent of what similar men are paid. President Obama and congressional Democrats have long pushed for the Paycheck Fairness Act to help shrink that gap. That bill would try to promote pay equity by promoting pay transparency — forcing employers to justify wage differentials, for example, as well as prohibiting retaliation against workers who ask about wages.
What Obama said: "We still need to make sure employees get the overtime they’ve earned."
What the policy does: Obama earlier this year asked the Labor Department to draft new overtime rules. The department could raise the minimum threshold under which workers must be paid time-and-a-half for working over 40 hours in a week. Currently it's just under $24,000 per year. The White House and Labor Department reportedly want to push it to $42,000, but some Democrats have been pushing a much more ambitious increase, to $69,000.
What Obama said: "And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise."
What the policy does: When you adjust the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) for inflation, it's in fact below where it was in the late 1960s. And it's a phenomenally low wage — a worker working full-time, year-round on that would earn only around $15,100. Obama has proposed raising that to $10.10 per hour, which would earn a worker around $21,000 per year. Currently, only a small share of Americans work at or below the minimum wage — just 4.3 percent of all hourly workers. And it's also a wage that most states have rejected. More than half of all states have set their minimum wages above the federal level.
The cost of college
What Obama said: "I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero."
What the policy does: Obama wants Congress to give grants to states to cover 75 percent of the tuition price of community college, with states kicking in the remaining 25 percent. That would lower community college tuition prices to zero for students. But for low-income students, tuition costs are effectively already free — Pell Grants cover the price of tuition. The biggest expenses are living expenses, transportation, and foregone wages, which even the full Pell Grant can't cover. That means middle-class and wealthier students, who don't get federal aid, would also benefit.
Obama has pushed to increase the nation's college-graduation rate. But it's worth pointing out that getting students to start college isn't the biggest problem with higher-education attainment in the US — it's getting them to graduate. And it's not clear if lower tuition at community colleges will do anything about graduation rates.
What Obama said: "Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come."
What the policy does: Right now, Congress is trying to come up with a way to maintain highway and transit funding in the years to come. The problem? There's no money. Obama has been pushing a plan to spend $302 billion over the next four years, paid for by hiking corporate taxes. That probably has no chance of passing. But Congress is mulling over other ideas. The notion of raising the gas tax to pay for infrastructure has been gaining some steam.
What Obama said: "I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair."
What the policy does: President Obama is asking Congress to pass something called Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate this massive trade deal with Pacific nations. Under that authority, Congress would provide the White House with guidelines about what it wants in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but after that, it would have to give whatever agreement the TPP countries come to an up-or-down vote — no amendments. That trade deal would lift barriers on trade in some goods, but it would also reach into other areas like intellectual property, environmental protection, and financial regulation. Some high-profile Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have balked. However, many Republicans are on board, and TPP appears to be one piece of high-profile legislation that Congress could actually pass this year. Much more on the TPP here.
What Obama said: "Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes – and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier."
What the policy does: Precision medicine describes a growing movement in medicine to build treatments specifically targeted to an individual’s genetic make-up. While the White House hasn’t specified how big this initiative will be, the idea is to invest more in these more individualized types of medicine that many experts see as the future of health care.
What Obama said: "I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world."
What the policy does: The president is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to make two big policy shifts here. First, he wants FCC to institute network neutrality rules that would bar companies like Comcast and Verizon from picking and choosing which content loads fastest for its customers. Second, he wants the FCC to strike down laws in 19 states that prohibit or limit local governments from spending taxpayer dollars on broadband networks. Last week, Obama visited the town of Cedar Falls, Iowa, where a publicly-owned utility company offers one of the fastest residential internet services in the country.
What Obama said: "Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home. Let’s simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford."
What the policy does: This is a restatement of a longstanding Obama administration proposal on corporate income taxes. The idea is to cut the statutory corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and make up the lost revenue by eliminating some of the many deductions and loopholes that exist in the current system. In the long run, this is revenue-neutral. In the short term, switching from one corporate income tax system to another will create a small windfall of money. Obama wants to use that money to finance infrastructure investments.
What Obama said: "Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy, and we can achieve that together."
What the policy does: This is an extremely brief shorthand description of a complicated series of tax changes White House officials described to reporters over the weekend. The basic story is that Obama would raise taxes on big banks, on wealthy investors, and on heirs to large fortunes and use the money to finance a series of new middle-class tax breaks.
What Obama said: "And that's why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America — by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year."
What the policy does: Obama is proposing to make the existing Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit more generous and available to more families. Every household with an income of up to $120,000 a year could get a tax credit of up to $3,000 to pay for childcare expenses.
The War on Terror
What Obama said: "We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies ... Tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL."
What the policy does: When Obama says "act unilaterally" to "take out terrorists," it's a euphemism for the targeted killing program. In Yemen, Somalia, and — most significantly — Pakistan, Obama has used drones and other American air assets to kill people the administration believes to be affiliated with al-Qaeda or related groups that threaten America. This program has killed at least 2,000 people, and experts aren't actually sure if the program is seriously weakening al-Qaeda. But targeted killing has been a major part of Obama's approach to counterterrorism.
The Obama administration has asked for legal authorization for the ISIS war before, back in December, but highlighting it now is a big deal. Previously, Obama has relied on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, for legal justification. They’ve also mentioned the 2002 AUMF, which authorized Bush’s Iraq war. These arguments were pretty shaky, so it’s probably good they’re asking for new authorization.
It’s also a major opportunity to reform the war on terror. A version of AUMF that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December actually set an expiration date for the 2001 law — a huge deal, because the law's vague language can be used to justify almost anything presidents want to do abroad in the name of fighting terrorism. But if Congress wants, they could use an ISIS AUMF to expand unilateral presidential powers to bomb and indefinitely detain suspected terrorists. There are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of that divide, so expect an interesting cross-partisan fight about the ISIS AUMF.
What Obama said: "We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters."
What the policy does: Obama is describing three policy efforts here, all launched in the past year in response to Russia's 2014 invasions of Ukraine. Effort number one has been to impose US sanctions on Russia to punish it for the invasions and to deter future Russian aggressions.
Effort number two was organizing European Union sanctions against Russia, which have far more bite because Russia's economy is so interlinked with Europe's, but were also a lot harder to organize.
And effort number three was to convince European NATO members that the US would live up to its commitment to defend those countries if Russia invaded — a way of keeping the alliance together, but also of warning Russia not to mess with any NATO countries. That included, significantly, Obama making a trip to Estonia, a former Soviet republic that borders Russia and is considered the NATO member most at risk of Russian meddling.
The upshot is that these efforts have so far worked in their immediate aims: They have prevented further Russia aggression in Europe, but that's only if you set a pretty high bar for what counts as aggression. Russian security forces kidnapped an Estonian officer in a cross-border raid just after Obama's speech — nobody trolls like Putin — and Russian military aircraft have been entering neighboring airspace and buzzing European planes. There is still a war in Ukraine, and it's going very badly.
What Obama said: "Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo."
What the policy does: The "Cuba embargo" is shorthand for a truly astronomical set of sanctions Congress has imposed over the years on Cuba. It amounts to a near-total ban on economic relations between the United States and Cuba. The idea is to undermine Cuba’s communist government through economic pressure, but evidence that the embargo has weakened the Castro regime is pretty scant.
In December 2014, Obama concluded a major deal with Cuba that set the stage for the embargo’s end. But Obama can’t shut it down on his own. He can waive some of the sanctions, but he needs Congress to end the policy once and for all.
What Obama said: "Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies – including Israel; while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict. There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom."
What the policy does: Obama is arguing that Congress should not pass new sanctions because they would undermine or outright combust the ongoing US-led efforts to strike a peaceful nuclear deal with Iran. Republicans have long been skeptical of Obama's Iran outreach efforts and will likely try to use their new Senate majority to force sanctions through. This will humiliate American negotiators who promised no new sanctions as well as Iranian moderates who want to compromise with the US and will empower Iranian hardliners who say the US can never be trusted. It would likely kill the short-lived outreach efforts between the US and Iran, initiated when moderate president Hassan Rouhani came into office in 2013.
The hard truth, though, is that the Iran nuclear talks were likely dead anyway. They missed yet another deadline for a deal in November; the next deadlines are set in March and July and, even if Congress does not impose deal-killing sanctions, it seems unlikely that the US and Iran will be able to reach an accord by then.
What Obama said: "I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information."
What the policy does: The centerpiece of Obama's cybersecurity agenda is the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, legislation that would immunize companies from privacy lawsuits when they share information about online threats with the government. The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives in 2013 but never made it through the Senate. Ironically, one reason for its failure was a White House veto threat; Obama feared the legislation would go too far in gutting privacy protections. The new version of the legislation is more narrowly drafted, but his proposal still got a chilly reception from civil-liberties groups.
What Obama said: "In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief."
What the policy does: This is a pretty humble little Asia section after the heady days of Obama's first-term promise that America would "pivot to Asia." Obama is continuing long-running US efforts to make east Asia a little bit more like Europe, by setting up international institutions that can monitor and regulate regional issues such as trade and security. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a big, regional free trade proposal, is certainly part of that, but it's also about lots of boring but maybe-one-day-important institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China sees this all as an American plot to isolate and constrain China's rise, and in truth it is partly about leaving Asia open and resistant to Chinese hegemony, but it's mostly about making sure that this increasingly important part of the world is peaceful, cooperative, and prosperous, which is very much in America's interests.
What Obama said: "In Beijing, we made an historic announcement – the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got."
What the policy does: Back in November, the US and China reached an agreement to tackle global warming and curtail greenhouse-gas emissions. The US pledged to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 (an extension of its current goal). China, for its part, set a goal of having emissions stop growing by "around" 2030 — and possibly earlier.
It remains to be seen whether these countries follow through. But the hope is that this spurs other countries to offer up their own voluntary pledges on emissions. And the idea is that at climate talks this December, UN negotiators will stitch all these pledges together into some sort of global agreement. It's unclear how strong that agreement will be — and there's reason to be skeptical that it's enough to avert drastic global warming. But that's the plan, at least.
What Obama said: "Since I’ve been President, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are."
What the policy does: Obama came into office pledging to shut down Guantanamo Bay, an American prison in Cuba housing war-on-terrorism detainees. During the Bush years, Guantanamo became a symbol of the Bush administration's abuse of counterterrorism power, particularly after evidence surfaced that detainees had been tortured.
But Obama has been unable to close Guantanamo. A lot of this is Congress: they passed legislation making it essentially impossible for Obama to simply transfer the inmates to American prisons or release them. Some prisoners have been held up because foreign countries have been unwilling to take them in, or for other political reasons. But regardless of the causes, one thing is clear: Obama has been stymied for six years on one of the signature campaign promises of his first election.
What Obama said: "While some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I haven’t. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy."
What the policy does: What makes this significant is Obama's decision not to call for Congress to pass NSA-reform legislation. For the last year, civil-liberties groups have been pushing the USA Freedom Act, which would limit bulk collection of Americans' calling records. The legislation died last November after a Senate filibuster. It's widely expected to be introduced again in the current Congress, but the president apparently doesn't consider its passage to be a priority.
What Obama said: "We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all."
What the policy does: Obama's actually alluding to two different clusters of policies here: reducing incarceration and reforming policing.
The Obama administration is overseeing a couple of major efforts to reduce the prison population. After the federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes were changed a few years ago, the federal sentencing commission ruled that as many as 46,000 current drug prisoners should be allowed to get their terms reduced: the first prisoners helped by the policy will be released starting this fall. And a separate effort is attempting to pardon many other drug offenders (although Obama's still actually issued many fewer pardons or commutations than his predecessors).
On policing, the administration has just reformed the way it helps local police officers with seizing the property of people who weren't convicted of crimes (though the reforms aren't as radical as a lot of people think). And it's reviewing the way the federal government sends surplus military equipment to police, though they're still incentivizing police to use any equipment they get within a year.
But when it comes to police-community relations, there's less they can do. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder has said that his "legacy project" is an initiative rolled out last fall that would essentially train cops in empathy. But actually changing the laws that govern police-community relations, and encouraging departments to change their philosophies toward the people they serve, is going to be up to state and local governments.