After a long spell of partisan trench warfare and gridlock, President Obama called for "a year of action" Tuesday as he focused on themes that are central to his second-term agenda. The changes he proposed in his annual State of the Union speech were relatively modest, but flashes of ambition showed in his promise to move forward, with or without Congress, to address issues of income inequality.
Here's what President Obama proposed on the policy front:
Twelve months ago, Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage (spoiler alert: they didn't do it). He made that same call again in his 2014 State of the Union address, but this time with a twist.
He said that "in the coming weeks" he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.
"[B]ecause if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty," he said.
But there are still a number of details to fill in. It's not clear just how many people will get a raise as a result of this planned action, and administration officials who briefed reporters weren't able to supply a number.
One reason it's hard to know: This will only apply to new federal contracts, so people working now for less than $10.10 could keep making the same wage unless their employer signs a new contract with the government.
"Let's understand something: This affects not one current contract," House Speaker John Boehner said hours before the speech. "It only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think the question is, how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."
Still, it represents a victory for low-wage workers who held walkouts and other actions to draw attention to their plight. Progressive Democrats — who have been calling for the president to sign an executive order giving these workers a raise — plan to watch closely as the executive order is drafted. They want to make sure that any new minimum wage is indexed to inflation.
Obama will tour a Costco warehouse store in Lanham, Md., Wednesday morning to highlight how that company pays employees more than minimum wage. In his address, the president called on other employers to do the same and encouraged states and cities to raise their own minimum wages.
"I say, you don't have to wait for Congress to act," said Obama. "Americans will support you if you take this on."
Obama also continues to call on Congress to pass minimum-wage legislation, as he did in last year's State of the Union. But congressional Republicans have made it clear this isn't something they intend to do. They argue that raising the minimum wage will hurt businesses and, by extension, low-wage workers.
"When it comes to the federal minimum wage, listen, I used to be an employer," Boehner added. "When you raise the cost of something, you get less of it."
-- Tamara Keith
President Obama had nothing new to offer on health care, but he was not going to miss the opportunity of his biggest audience of the year to plug the Affordable Care Act.
In just a few sentences, the president managed to highlight the most popular and successful elements of the health law — things like guaranteeing coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions and letting young adults stay on their parents' health plans — while making no mention of the problems that have plagued the law's rollout.
Enrollment numbers that seemed dismal just a month ago suddenly seem robust enough to become fodder for the speech: "More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage," he said, referring to the 3 million people who have signed up through state and federally run exchanges through late January and the more than 6 million found eligible for Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program between Oct. 1 and the end of 2013.
He challenged Congress to stop trying to repeal the law — which brought a thundering ovation from Democrats who are up for election in the fall — and urged those who don't have insurance to get it before open enrollment ends March 31. "Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application," he said.
Not surprisingly, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, speaking for the Republicans, had pretty much the opposite view of the law.
"No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were," she said in her rebuttal, "but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's."
Interestingly, neither the president nor McMorris Rodgers mentioned one of the most contentious elements of the law now working its way through the courts — the requirement for most health plans to cover FDA-approved contraceptives without deductibles or co-payments. The requirement has prompted dozens of lawsuits from religious and private employers and is headed to the Supreme Court this spring.
There was also scant attention to Medicare, other than Obama's passing mention that the Affordable Care Act would expand benefits to seniors and shore up the program's financing. Republicans used the Medicare spending reductions in the law to hammer Democrats in the 2010 elections, but since then most of their proposals, including one unveiled by senior GOP senators this week, would leave those spending reductions untouched.
-- Julie Rovner
As expected, the president maintained a light touch as he tasked Congress with doing what he asked it to do in the last State of the Union — pass immigration reform.
Noting that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate had already acted, Obama said he knew members of both parties in the House wanted to do likewise.
"So let's get immigration reform done this year," he concluded.
Notably, he did not call for the House to pass the path to citizenship that the Senate bill made available to the millions of immigrants currently in the country without authorization. He didn't ask for a comprehensive bill, nor did he endorse the step-by-step approach House Republicans advocate.
The president essentially left House Republicans to own whatever they come up with — he seemed to recognize that any policy prescriptions he dispensed would likely backfire. As he and other Democrats know, failure to do anything on immigration will likely further erode the GOP's already low standing with Latino voters.
The GOP has a strong incentive to act — and Obama tried Tuesday night not to get in the way.
-- David Welna
National Security: Afghanistan And The War On Terror
The president's claim that the longest war "will finally be over" represents standard fare — and he broke no new ground on the question of the security agreement with Afghanistan. Some 10,000 troops may remain in Afghanistan after this year if that deal is signed, so the idea that the war is over is a bit of a stretch — albeit a stretch the White House has been making for a year.
The speech captured the tension between security and politics: that the White House very much wants the war to be over, but that to leave too quickly could lead to chaos on the ground in Afghanistan. And that debate is playing out now inside the Obama administration.
The first item that needs to be resolved is this: Will Afghanistan's president sign on to a bilateral security agreement that all sides thought was done last fall? Instead, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has held it up and made the relationship more and more complicated.
If the deal falls through, it's most likely that no U.S. troops will remain beyond the end of 2014 — sometimes called the "zero option." If the deal is agreed to — and this may not happen until the April election in Afghanistan — then the U.S. must decide how many troops would remain. The Pentagon is pushing for about 10,000. The military is telling the president's team that it needs that many troops to carry out two key missions: counterterrorism and the training of Afghan troops. Others inside the White House want a much smaller number. It could be weeks or months before we know what number the White House settles on.
The winding down of the war in Afghanistan raises a broader question: When does the war on terrorism ever end? In his speech Tuesday evening, the president said: "America must move off a permanent war footing." It's a theme the president first outlined in a May speech at the National Defense University.
The legacies of the war on terrorism are Guantanamo, drones and surveillance — practices that the White House is looking to change. The big idea is that all were justified by the idea of permanent war. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation created a new national security state that was, to put it charitably, improvised. That led to the use of torture, or what became known as enhanced interrogations. Those early days, in late 2001, marked the start of the NSA surveillance programs that evolved over time and are at the center of national debate today. Likewise with Guantanamo.
But if that "permanent" war comes to a close and terrorism ceases to dominate national security policy, then there may no longer be a rationale for these policies.
The hard part is getting there — finding a way to do away with them. Congress makes it all but impossible to close Gitmo; drone strikes are on the decline but still too central to counterterrorism policy; and NSA surveillance changes are taking place at the margin.
For example, in a speech a week ago, the president called for the government to stop collecting the phone records of all Americans, the so-called "metadata" program. But he does not want to end the program entirely, only to reform it. That's the part no one has the answer to. If the government doesn't hold those phone records, who does? Note also that this was the one place in the State of the Union address where the president alluded to the debate over surveillance and the NSA. It got one sentence.
Permanent wars are hard to end.
-- Bruce Auster
Obama's remarks on moving off permanent war footing were part of laying out his case for "strong and principled diplomacy."
He used his State of the Union speech to urge Congress to give U.S. diplomats some room to maneuver, particularly when it comes to Iran. "We must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," he implored. He warned lawmakers that he would veto a new sanctions bill, which Obama said could derail talks on rolling back Iran's nuclear program.
Fifty-nine lawmakers are co-sponsoring a new sanctions bill, which Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., portrays as a diplomatic insurance policy. It would impose new sanctions if talks fail to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
"If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions," Obama told a skeptical Congress, "and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. "
On Syria, the president broke no new ground, saying only that American diplomacy is "why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated." He added that his administration is also trying to help "achieve an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side."
-- Michele Kelemen
$75 billion over the next 10 years to expand preschool programs — that's what the president initially proposed last year by raising cigarette taxes.
This would be the main source of new funding earmarked for states to enroll all 4-year-olds in state-run programs by 2020. But despite the president's call Tuesday for making "high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old," it's unlikely that Congress is going to take this up, despite growing support in state legislatures.
Forty states and the District of Columbia today enroll 1.1 million mostly poor 4-year-olds at a cost of $5.6 billion. Thirty have increased funding for preschool in the past year by 7 percent — in 10 states, by more than 20 percent.
And yet state-run programs are only reaching about 30 percent of eligible children — 40 percent if you add the number of low-income children in Head Start.
On community colleges, the president announced new partnerships with business to create job training programs and apprenticeships. But community college leaders have complained that the federal aid to do that is not nearly enough to make up for huge cuts in state funding for their institutions.
In states like California, community colleges are for the first time having to turn away students.
As part of the "opportunity for all" theme, the administration has embarked on a campaign to increase the number of low-income, college-eligible students who enroll and complete college. Currently, no more than half of these students apply to college. The president made clear that higher education is one way to deal with income inequality by creating a path for poor young people to make their way into the middle class and beyond.
More than 150 college presidents have signed onto this campaign, vowing to reach out to more poor college-eligible students and offer more financial aid and support services on their campuses for these students.
As for his "Race to the Top" initiative to raise the quality of schools and student performance, the president said it "has helped states raise expectations and performance." But American students are still far behind in math and reading compared with other industrialized nations.
Many educators complain that the president's policies have been used as a carrot-and-stick approach that distributes about $4.5 billion to states on the condition that they adopt reforms prescribed by the administration — like creating career- and college-ready standards, shutting down failing schools and paying teachers based on their performance and kids' test scores.
All of it is highly controversial — and it's generating lots of pushback from teachers unions, parent groups opposed to testing, and minority community activists who say their neighborhood schools are being shut down and replaced by privately run charter schools (or what some call "the privatization of public education").
-- Claudio Sanchez
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This morning we've been hearing highlights of President Obama's State of the Union Address. Over the next few minutes we want to dig into the specifics. We gathered in our studio a group of NPR correspondents to put into context some of what the president said last night. We'll start with an announcement that was expected, involving raising the minimum wage for a few Americans.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT: In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour, because if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.
MONTAGNE: Tamara Keith covers the White House for NPR. And Tamara, first off, how many people is the president talking about here?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: We don't know. That's the honest answer. We don't know how many. House Speaker John Boehner suggested that it would be somewhere close to zero. And the reason we don't know, and the reason why it could be a low number - other estimates put it at more like a couple hundred thousand - is that this applies only to new federal contracts. Not current contracts, not current employees of these contractors.
But if a new contract is negotiated, it would apply to those employees. And we don't know really how many of those are outstanding or when these contracts might be negotiated, which is why there are a lot of details to fill in here.
MONTAGNE: Well, the president talked about other ways in which the minimum wage has been raised around the country that didn't involve Congress. But as he himself put it, Congress needs to get on board if millions are to be reached.
KEITH: That would be true. Some states have raised their minimum wages. He also pointed to employers who have decided to pay their employees more than the minimum wage, even though they don't have to. So he's trying a lot of different options, also try to put a little pressure on Congress to raise the minimum wage as well - but that seems like it's not going to happen anytime soon.
House Republicans are just absolutely not interested in raising the minimum wage, in part because they believe that it hurts businesses and by extension low-wage employees.
MONTAGNE: Let's turn now to look at another area where, to make a difference, Congress and the president have to come together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When people come here to fulfill their dreams - to study, invent, contribute to our culture - they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let's get immigration reform done this year.
MONTAGNE: Immigration reform, it's been a tough one. And this year the president framed his call for immigration reform in economic terms.
Joining us is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna, and what about that?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Renee, you know, he said that having some kind of immigration overhaul could lead to a trillion dollars in both economic growth and deficit reduction over the next 20 years. That works out to be about a billion dollars a week. But I think the real point was that doing this would benefit everybody and not just immigrants, there's something in it for all of us.
MONTAGNE: And in fact, there does seem to be momentum building for some sort of reform.
WELNA: There does in the House. It wasn't unclear that anything was going to happen as late as late last year. But suddenly it seems that House speaker John Boehner has a new resolve to get something done this election year. And in fact House Republicans are going off to a three-day retreat today, where they will be presented with a plan that even mentions the possibility of legal status for millions of people who are here without authorization. And it would go so far as to grant citizenship for the children who were brought illegally by their parents.
Now, this goes a lot farther than Republicans have gone in the past. It's a very divisive issue for their party. And there are some Republicans who are saying don't do it, it could screw things up for the election. But I think President Obama was trying to tread lightly with this and let the Republicans do it on their own and not squeeze the bar too tightly lest it slip out.
MONTAGNE: Well, in fact this goes to the overall theme of the president's speech, which was opportunity, and to that end Mr. Obama talked about the opportunity for a good education in what might be called his trademark program.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance.
MONTAGNE: We've brought in education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. And Claudio, does everyone agree that the Race to the Top has been a great success?
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: No.
MONTAGNE: In a word.
SANCHEZ: Although - no, in a word. Although I have to say there was polite agreement and scattered praise from teachers unions, school board officials and public education advocates in the reaction to the president's comments. But in the trenches, most educators resent that the president's education policies have been used as a carrot and stick, distributing billions of dollars to states on the condition that they adopt reforms prescribed by the administration, like adopting career and college-ready standards, shutting down failing schools, performance pay for teachers, and tying teacher evaluations to kids' test scores.
All highly controversial, all generating lots of pushback from teachers, parents, groups opposed to more testing, and community activists who say their neighborhood schools are being shut down and replaced by privately run charter schools, or what some call the privatization of public education. So there is a lot of work that the president has to do in the coming year to mend these relationships with key groups.
MONTAGNE: And that was part of a speech that, for the most part last night, was domestic. But not all domestic. President Obama touched on a few challenging areas of foreign policy, including Syria and Iran, but he got sustained applause when he said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year and America's longest war will finally be over.
MONTAGNE: NPR's national security editor Bruce Auster is here in the studio. And Bruce, combat operations will be over by 2014, the end of the year, but the president also said a small force could remain behind to train and advise Afghan forces and pursue al-Qaida, so the war's not quite over.
BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: That's right. The end of the year means that the 37,000 troops who are there now, that number comes way down, and so the combat mission ends. But the question that remains is how many stay behind. And if the United States and Afghanistan sign a security agreement, and there's a big if there about whether that happens, then the question becomes how many troops stay.
The Pentagon wants 10,000 troops to remain because they want to do two missions. They want to do a counterterrorism mission and they want to be able to train Afghan forces. That's the number they say they need. There are people in the White House who want a smaller number. And this raises, again, the question, the tension between security and politics. Politically, people just want this over.
But to get out properly and not leave the place in chaos may require keeping troops behind.
MONTAGNE: And beyond Afghanistan, the president repeated his hopes to end what he calls the state of permanent war that we've been in since 9/11.
AUSTER: That's right. It's a theme he's raised before. It's the idea that the war on terror has gone all these years, how does it ever end and does it ever end? The legacies of the war on terror are things like Guantanamo, the surveillance program we've heard a lot about in the news, the drone policy. The question is, if the war ever ends, how do those specific policies change? And with things like Guantanamo, we've learned over the years how hard it is to close that place.
Each of these policies poses challenges in terms of how the president winds it down.
MONTAGNE: That's national security editor Bruce Auster. We were also joined by education correspondent Claudio Sanchez, David Welna, our congressional correspondent and White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks to all of you for joining us.
KEITH: Thank you.
WELNA: Thank you.
SANCHEZ: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: And they were breaking down some of what we heard from President Obama last night in his fifth State of the Union speech before Congress. We have more reaction to the president's address elsewhere in the program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.