5 Things to Listen for in Obama’s State of the Union

This year the president will press his agenda with—or without—Congress.

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President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), delivers his State of the Union speech at the U.S. Capitol Feb. 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Charles Dharapak-Pool/Getty Images

For four years, President Barack Obama has offered his State of the Union address in a time-honored format that follows the trend set by most of his predecessors: with a laundry list of policy plans that he has hoped to rally Congress to pass.

This year, though, he’s expected to try a variation on that theme. He’ll still have a laundry list. But unlike last year’s speech, when he failed to rally Congress to enact gun control legislation after repeatedly exclaiming, “They deserve a vote!”—in honor of shooting victims like Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton and the students and teachers who died in the Newtown, Conn., massacre—the White House is conceding in advance what people already know:

House Republicans won’t be taking up Obama’s agenda—mostly because it’s Obama’s agenda.

Instead, he’s expected to say that he won’t hesitate to use the power of his office—specifically, the executive order—to work around the GOP-controlled House of Representatives if that’s the only way he can move forward on his policy priorities.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says that sounds “vaguely like a threat,” but it’s unclear what Republicans will actually do about it. By threatening greater use of executive order power, Obama is daring them to continue thwarting his legislative agenda and, at the same time, hoping to rally Democrats in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. 

Here’s what else to listen for in Tuesday night’s speech.

1. Income Inequality

Last summer the president noted that “the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, while the typical family’s barely budged.” On a global scale, that’s been punctuated by recent reports that the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as the world’s poorest 3 billion people.

It’s a theme that’s likely to be heard a lot Tuesday night, even if Obama might not actually say “income inequality”—opting instead for a poll-tested phrase like “ladders of opportunity." But he will chide Congress for failing to extend long-term unemployment benefits when it passed its budget earlier this month. And even though his call in last year’s SOTU to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour didn’t happen, this year he’s expected to return to the issue by calling for a raise to $10.10.

2. Zones and Hubs

Obama test-drove two initiatives in January that he’s likely to keep talking about in the SOTU: Promise Zones and “technology hubs.”

In a speech at North Carolina State University earlier this month, he touted a $70 million Department of Energy investment in work being done at the school’s Centennial Campus, which he called a “high-tech manufacturing hub” to boost American manufacturing innovation. Also in January, Obama unveiled a proposal for Promise Zones—rolling out a combination of tax incentives and “aid in cutting through red tape to get access to existing resources”—to help foster businesses and improve schools in a cross-section of urban and rural communities.

3. Snowden and Spying

Though he’s unlikely to mention National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden by name, Obama will probably give a brief summary of the speech he gave in January, when he proposed a series of fairly modest reforms to National Security Agency surveillance programs and warned that if an individual “can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy.” 

4. Leaving Afghanistan

Foreign affairs won’t be the focus of his speech, but look for the president to remind Americans that 2014 is the year most of our troops are set to come home from Afghanistan, pending negotiations with the Afghan government on terms for leaving behind a residual force of “advisers.”

5. Obamacare

And the political fight over health coverage will continue in 2014, but in the SOTU, the president will likely highlight the news that Affordable Care Act enrollment is now more than 3 million.

But the headline, as the White House has previewed, is that on a variety of fronts, Obama—who has actually issued the fewest executive orders of any president in more than a century—will up the ante by using his “pen” and his “phone” to get things done if Congress refuses to budge.

As adviser Dan Pfeiffer told Fox News this Sunday, “If Congress doesn’t act, the president will.”

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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