President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday evening to a joint session of Congress and a room of guests that included athletes, Afghanistan war veterans, Boston marathon bombing survivors and even reality TV stars.
His address, given at a time when Obama’s approval ratings were at one of the lowest points in his presidency, followed a steady pattern of highlighting his administration’s achievements while simultaneously urging Congress to act on a number of hot-button issues like immigration and unemployment.
From Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the president touched upon everything from minimum wage to the controversial NSA surveillance program and drone policies, solar energy, tax reform and early education. He also encouraged Congress not to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Obama opened his speech with several one-sentence anecdotes of ordinary Americans in “tight-knit communities all across America.” He mentioned teachers who stay late to tutor students, entrepreneurs, and families waiting for soldiers to return.
The president continued by drawing attention to the country’s lowest unemployment rate in five years (a statement which some viewers quickly turned to Twitter to rebuff). Obama said that under his administration’s watch, the country’s deficit was cut in half. He said America’s economy is continuing to improve -- although he did note that average wages have hardly budged and that “upward mobility has stalled.”
But the president tried hard not to let that fact overshadow his broader message that the U.S. is better off than it was when he first took office.
“For the first time in over a decade,” he continued, “China is no longer the number one place to invest. America is.”
Obama also noted what he called the “rancorous argument” in Congress over the size of the government. “As a president I’m committed to making government work better,” he said in an apparent nod to the events that led to last year’s government shutdown.
“Nobody got everything they wanted,” he said.
The president’s first standing ovation of the evening was when he said the war in Afghanistan is almost over.
Here are five takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address:
The president said the war in Afghanistan is almost over. “If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda,” Obama said.
But critics noted that there was no indication of just how many troops the administration is willing to leave behind in Afghanistan after 2014, nor did Obama mention Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The president wants the U.S. to focus on improving sources of renewable energy. “The debate is settled,” he said. “Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”
The president said that the renewable energy movement in America is gaining traction, and has already proven successful for both the private and public sector.
“Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar,” he said.
Obama urged Congress to restore unemployment insurance for 1.35 million Americans. The president pointed a finger at Congress, saying it’s their fault for letting unemployment insurance expire.
“We are stronger when America fields a full team,” Obama said.
President Obama called on business owners to raise employees’ minimum wages. “Give America a raise,” he said. The president argued that raising minimum wages would “ease financial stress” on workers and “boost morale.”
The president said he would take the first step by raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. He also spoke directly to business owners, urging them to voluntarily increase their employees’ wages.
“Do what you can to raise your employees’ wages,” the president said. “Its’ good for the economy, it’s good for America.”
He added: “You don’t have to wait for Congress to act.”
The president asked Congress not to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The president quipped about not having another 40 votes to repeal the program. This remark was met with applause from democratic attendants.
“For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health-care system,” Obama said. “And in case you haven’t heard, we’re in the process of fixing that.”
The president highlighted stories of Americans who are already benefiting from the law, including those with pre-existing conditions who can no longer be denied insurance.
“That’s what health insurance reforms is all about – the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything,” he said.