The White House on Monday called the State of the Union the second act, as it will build on the priorities Obama outlined in his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20. In that speech, America saw an unapologetic, progressive Obama who spoke about protecting entitlements, gay rights, immigration reform, passing new gun laws, health care, and building America’s prosperity through boosting the middle class.
“The core emphasis that he has always placed in these big speeches remains the same and will remain the same,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “which is the need to make the economy work for the middle class, because the middle class is the engine that drives this country forward and which will, if it is given the right tools and the right opportunities, drive us forward in the 21st century.”
Here are five things to watch for during Obama’s fifth State of the Union Address:
1. Jobs And The Economy
The President is expected to outline a job creation plan and proposals that will help grow both the middle class and the economy, Carney said on Monday, without giving specifics. The middle class is a familiar theme to Obama, who spared the group a huge tax hike, when a last-minute fiscal cliff deal was brokered in the first week of January.
“We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class,” Obama said during his Inaugural Address. “We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
Beyond bolstering the middle class, making jobs and the economy the focus of the State of the Union is only fitting, seeing that the nation is still facing other "fiscal cliffs," and the unemployment rate has stubbornly held just below 8 percent, even though the economy is growing (although GDP fell surprisingly in the last quarter of 2012, by 0.1 percent).
A series of defense and non-defense spending cuts spread over a decade, known as sequester, will begin on March 1, absent action from congressional leaders. This year’s cut is expected to total about $85 billion, threatening thousands of jobs. With both the White House and Republicans at odds, the president will likely issue a reminder of how dire things could be if the GOP’s threat to let sequestration happen is actually fulfilled.
Obama has urged Congress to find a short-term solution to the sequester that includes spending cuts and revenue increases. Some of that revenue would come from ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies. But Republicans are opting to use the sequester as leverage in order to get steeper spending cuts. The GOP wants no reduction in the Pentagon’s budget. Instead, it believes entitlements should be sacrificed.
During his election campaign Obama promised immigration reform. Latinos were key to the president’s re-election, especially in several battleground states. They voted for Obama 71 percent, compared to challenger Mitt Romney, who received 27 percent of Latino votes last year.
It seems progress is being made.
Late last month, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants. The lawmakers are hoping legislation can be drafted by March. The plan includes border enforcement and holding employers accountable for their employees. Obama has praised this move, but put forward his own approach, calling for a pathway to citizenship. Some Republicans view the president’s approach as rewarding illegal immigrants, so there are doubts as to whether legislation will actually be passed this year.
The GOP seems to have been anticipating that immigration would form part of Obama’s State of the Union address, and perhaps that is why Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, has been chosen to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union.
3. Gun Control
Last December’s massacre of 26 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has led to an aggressive push for tighter gun laws by the White House. Obama has since proposed measures that include universal background checks, limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines and a ban on assault weapons. This issue isn’t expected to be dominant in the State of the Union speech, but with such a large audience, Obama is sure to drive the point home. And the presence of gun violence victims, who will be guests at the event, may just hammer the point home.
4. Nuclear Weapons
A recent report from the New York Times stated that Obama will announce America's willingness to reduce its nuclear warheads by a third, sending the arsenal down to just over 1,000. An announcement of that kind would be a return to earlier promises, when Obama kept an early focus during his first term on nuclear weapon reduction.
When asked about the issue this week, Carney said, “Well, I would say that the president made clear publicly his desire to further reduce nuclear arms. I don’t think there was anything new in the story that suggested to the contrary. His commitment to arms control and nuclear reductions is well known. But I do not anticipate a new announcement in the State of the Union address.” Carney spoke before a North Korean nuclear test on Tuesday returned nukes to center stage.
5. Climate Change And Energy
Obama will most likely continue promoting clean energy and tackling climate change. Energy was one of the president’s priorities when he took office in 2009, but not much has been done on that front. It doesn’t seem likely that he will be giving up on this issue soon. As long as Republicans control the House though, it is very unlikely the president could push through legislation to reduce carbon emissions. The State of the Union is another venue to remind the public of what is on the wish list.
And as bonus, Politico just reported that Obama will announce the return of 34,000 service members from Afghanistan within the year.