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

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

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.