The State of the Union’s original focus is to explain, well, the state of the union. But presidents have also used the high-profile speech to highlight their policy agenda, particularly what they expect to do in the next year.
This year, White House officials promised President Barack Obama will focus less on a "laundry list" of plans and more on "America’s potential" and his successes in office. Nonetheless, there were clear policy ideas in Obama’s speech. Here, we pull apart what Obama said, what his policy plans would do, and what issues he’s trying to address.
What Obama said: "For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all."
What the policy does: The idea to make curing cancer America’s next "moonshot" first came from Vice President Joe Biden, who envisioned it in a speech announcing he would not run for president one last time. Biden, who suffered the untimely death of his son Beau to brain cancer, personally lobbied for the biggest increase in cancer research funding in a decade in the budget deal struck in December — $264 million for the national Cancer Institute.
The effort Obama proposed, led by Biden himself, has two main pieces: The first will be to speed up the pace of research by increasing funds and coordinating the work done across institutions. The second will be a coordinated effort to communicate findings, normally trapped in a small academic community, at a quicker pace to oncologists and patients across the country. That will involve a call on data and technology companies to make data easier to access.
Though the plan as of now is a little vague aside from an increase in emphasis, Biden outlined his priorities in a Medium post, which include meeting with international experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos next week to discuss the state of cancer research and treatment and meeting with Cabinet heads and the leaders of relevant agencies to support new research.
What Obama said: "Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills."
What the policy does: The idea behind wage insurance is pretty simple. Right now if you lose your job and become unemployed, for a limited period of time you get a check from the government that will replace some of your income. Under a wage insurance scheme, if you lose your job and then get a new, lower-paying job, you will get a check from the government that covers some of the difference between your new salary and your old one. The idea is to help people deal with the inevitable ups and downs of economic fortune that come with technological change and simple luck.
Of course, that basic description leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What is the time limit? Who is eligible? How is it financed? How much of the difference will be replaced? How will the system treat benefits? Realistically, it’s hard to see any version of a new wage insurance entitlement being enacted by a Republican candidate, so any discussion of details would be purely hypothetical. But if this idea is going to be part of the Democratic Party agenda in the future, it’s going to need some fleshing out.
Terrorism and refugees
What Obama said: "Instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage."
What the policy does: This is a double-barreled passage: It’s simultaneously an argument against hawkish rhetoric in foreign policy and against taking a "tough" line on not accepting refugees. The Obama administration has firmly opposed Republican proposals to restrict or freeze Syrian and Iraqi refugees from coming into the country — proposals that the GOP is now taking up again in 2016.
But it’s interesting that Obama included "parts of Central America" in this, as well. The administration is currently being criticized vehemently from the left (including by Democrats in both chambers of Congress) about its current treatment of Central American immigrants. Critics say the administration ought to be treating these immigrants as refugees for fleeing some of the most violent countries on Earth, but is instead launching nationwide raids to find and deport them.
On Tuesday night, the New York Times reported the US is working to set up refugee screening in Central America — the question is whether that will change whether Central Americans in the US are also seen as people needing "more than tough talk."
What Obama said: "I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform."
What the policy does: Obama is referring to a criminal justice bill currently working through Congress that could potentially ease mass incarceration, at least at the federal level. The Senate bill, the most promising piece of legislation on this issue, would ease mandatory minimum sentences and offer federal prisoners an opportunity to shorten their sentences, among other changes. (You can read much more about it here.)
But this bill wouldn’t completely erase America’s spot as the world’s leader in incarceration: Most US prisoners are held at the state level, mostly for violent crimes. And even on the federal level, the reform falls far short from entirely abolishing mandatory minimums, as some reformers would like.
What Obama said: "I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like … helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse and heroin abuse."
What the policy does: Obama is referring to the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic that has led to a harrowing number of overdose deaths over the past two decades. In 2014, there were more than 47,000 deaths in just one year, two-thirds of which were opioid-related, according to recent federal data.
The epidemic started when doctors, persuaded by campaigns from advocacy groups and drug companies, prescribed more and more opioid painkillers to help Americans deal with pain. But as the epidemic grew, state and federal officials cracked down on excess prescriptions, leading addicts to turn to another opioid — heroin, which is cheaper on the streets than painkillers — to sustain their habit. (Read more about the epidemic here.)
The Obama administration has taken some steps to address these deaths, with a big focus on providing more treatment options through increased federal funding and public-private partnerships. This would address a major gap in drug treatment: According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who meet the definition for a drug abuse disorder don't get treatment. And that's likely an underestimate: Federal household surveys leave out incarcerated and homeless individuals, who are more likely to have serious, untreated drug problems.
What Obama said: "And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done: fixing a broken immigration system."
What the policy does: Obama has always said that the only permanent way to address immigration is for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that would improve border security, change the laws for admitting new immigrants in the future, and create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already here. But Congress, under Republican control, is very much not buying it, and Obama knows that.
"Pushing for progress," however, doesn’t just refer to legislative requests. Right now, the Obama administration is pushing to get the Supreme Court to take up a case regarding the executive actions Obama announced in 2014, which would protect millions of immigrants from deportation and allow them to get work permits.
The executive actions have been put on hold due to lower court rulings. And if the Supreme Court lets the case fall to next year, Obama will be out of office by the time it’s examined (and a future Republican president might have undone the executive actions anyway). So Obama is very much hoping the Supreme Court agrees to take up the case and save his legacy on the issue.
What Obama said: "I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that still needs doing. … Protecting our kids from gun violence."
What the policy does: America has a unique gun problem: It has far more gun homicides — and firearm ownership — than the rest of the developed world. After several mass shootings during his time in office, Obama has pushed more and more for Congress to pass gun control measures. But Congress has by and large rejected the president’s calls, so he’s moved alone. Most recently, he enacted executive actions that will tighten — but not close — the "gun show loophole" and hire more staff to run background checks, among other tweaks to current federal law. (Read more about Obama’s executive actions here.)
What Obama said: "Real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job. The bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind was an important start, and together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids."
What the policy does: Obama is covering a lot of ground here, but not really proposing anything we haven’t heard before. He’s praising the Every Student Succeeds Act, the congressional overhaul of No Child Left Behind, although it will allow states to get rid of some of his signature education policies if they want. He’s calling back to previous State of the Union proposals on pre-K. And he’s taking credit for the high school graduation rate, which has increased from 75 percent to 82 percent — an increase that’s probably due to both educational improvements and to some states making it easier to graduate.
What Obama said: "And we have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. Now we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year."
What the policy does: This is a callback to last year’s State of the Union, where Obama called for a federal-state partnership where the federal government would essentially subsidize community college tuition to bring it down to zero. This has been a nonstarter in Congress, but the White House lobbied state and city officials in the past year to put the idea in motion at the local level.
What Obama said: "That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st-century transportation system."
What the policy does: It’s impossible to tell much from this, but the administration has been hinting for a while that it’s going to reform the way the Department of Interior leases public land to fossil fuel developers. The coal leasing program in particular has come under criticism for leasing land for dirt cheap, effectively subsidizing coal companies. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to announce something in the coming months — perhaps some new way of assessing the value of the land.
What Obama said: "The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe."
What the policy does: Obama was referencing the Black Lives Matter movement that has put a spotlight on racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system as a whole. Although his administration has not taken sweeping actions or convinced Congress to pass a law to address these issues, it has taken some smaller steps — such as encouraging police departments to adopt officer-worn body cameras, using the Department of Justice’s oversight powers to investigate abusive and negligent police departments, and launching an initiative that will hopefully help communities and police departments build trust. (Read more about the issues surrounding police use of force in America here.)
Family economic security
What Obama said: "And I’ll keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done. … Equal pay for equal work, paid leave, raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families; they are still the right thing to do, and I will not let up until they get done."
What the policy does: Equal pay for women, paid family and medical leave, and raising the minimum wage each got its own extended treatment in last year’s State of the Union address. This year, they were grouped together in one sentence. The administration has been pushing on a few fronts.
While the gender wage gap is the product of many factors, discrimination is one of them. Obama wants Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would ban employers from retaliating against workers who talk to each other about how much they earn and make it harder to justify unequal pay along gender lines.
The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have some kind of universal paid maternity leave; Obama has endorsed the FAMILY Act to fix that problem and create a social insurance program for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for everyone.
Raising the minimum wage wouldn’t just benefit women (nor would paid family leave), but two-thirds of low-wage workers are women, many of whom support children and don’t have a spouse’s income to rely on. Democrats in Congress debate whether we should gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $12 or $15.
What Obama said: "If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, you should finally authorize the use of military force against ISIL. Take a vote. But the American people should know that with or without congressional action, ISIL will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them."
What the policy does: Obama is calling on Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS (or ISIL). As it stands now, the president is bombing ISIS based on the authority granted under the 2001 AUMF. The problem is that the 2001 AUMF specifically gave authorization to fight al-Qaeda, and ISIS has not been part of al-Qaeda since February 2014, when the two groups formally broke all ties (and became bitter enemies). Thus, some members of Congress have argued that Obama is acting against ISIS without congressional authorization.
In response, Obama actually sent a draft AUMF proposal to Congress in 2015 to try to get them to pass it, but it failed. So by calling on Congress to pass a new AUMF in his State of the Union speech, Obama is essentially telling Congress — more specifically, Republicans in Congress who criticize him for being soft on ISIS — to put their money where their mouths are and pass a new AUMF. But until they do, Obama will continue to bomb ISIS under the old AUMF.
What Obama said: "We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now. Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach. … It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight. That’s our approach to conflicts like Syria, where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace."
What the policy does: Obama is defending his policy in Syria against those who argue we should be doing more to help topple the Assad regime and fight ISIS there. He’s invoking Vietnam and Iraq to show that a full-scale invasion and occupation like the US did in Iraq starting in 2003 is not feasible or desirable in Syria.
But he’s also saying that just because we’re not invading and occupying Syria doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything to help. We’re "partnering with local forces" like the Kurds and others fighting ISIS and Assad, and we’re "leading international efforts" by trying to get the different parties in the conflict to negotiate a peaceful settlement. It’s not working, but we’re trying.
What Obama said: "You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo."
What the policy does: On December 17, 2014, Obama took the most consequential step in America’s Cuba policy since the embargo was put in place when he announced that the two countries would restore diplomatic ties.
Since then, the Obama administration has moved swiftly to normalize relations and poke holes in America’s embargo. The two nations once more opened embassies in each other’s capitals, and a bevy of American businesses, including Verizon and Airbnb, struck lucrative deals with enterprises on the island.
Americans wishing to travel to the island can now go under significantly loosened travel restrictions, and the administration just recently announced that commercial flights between the two nations will soon resume.
Now the president has called on Congress to lift the full embargo, an action that Congress alone can take. Though any change in the nation’s Cuba policy has long been a nonstarter with politicians, Obama’s recent efforts to restore ties have made it politically untenable to reverse course.
What Obama said: "We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do."
What the policy does: Obama is using broad strokes rather than proposing specific reforms. But he’s clearly laying out three major ways he thinks our political system could work better. First, he’s calling for an end to partisan gerrymandering — the practice of districts being drawn for the benefit of politicians or parties. The most common proposals for reforming this involve taking the district-drawing power out of politicians’ hands entirely, and letting independent or nonpartisan commissions handle the job.
Second, he’s once again pressing for campaign finance reform — but he’s acknowledging that Supreme Court decisions and the intense partisan polarization around the issue nationally have limited his options, so he’s vaguely hoping that the parties will "work together to find a real solution."
And finally, his nod to voting rights reform implicitly nodding both to those long voting lines he promised to "fix" during his 2012 victory speech, and to the voter ID laws he's criticized as an obstacle to Americans trying to exercise their voting rights.
Tax breaks for the poor
What Obama said: "I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a hand up, and I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids."
What the policy does: Obama is specifically talking about plans both he and Ryan have put forward to expand the earned income tax credit, the biggest federal program supporting the working poor. The plans are so similar, they're nearly identical. They both want to double the credit's maximum value from $503 to $1,005. They both want to increase the phase-in/phase-out rates to 15.3 percent. They both want phase-out to start at $11,500 for single, childless people rather than $8,220. Given that Obama's plan came first, it appeared that Ryan simply copied it wholesale.
But the odds that Obama and Ryan will come together and have a "serious discussion" about passing this plan aren't particularly good. They completely disagree about how to pay for it. Obama would pay for the expansion by raising taxes on hedge fund managers and rich self-employed people, while Ryan would cut other safety net programs and "corporate welfare," which is this case means specifically energy subsidies the Obama administration likes. Ryan has explicitly rejected Obama's funding mechanism, and it's hard to imagine Obama accepting Ryan's. Until that changes, don’t expect a lot of action here.