Silence on key issues speaks loudly
- President Barack Obama didn’t mention or comparatively downplayed a number of key issues in his State of the Union
- He mostly avoided ObamaCare and immigration reform, despite acting on those issues during his time in office
- He also ignored gun control and campaign finance reform, two of progressives’ pet priorities
In the 70-minute-long address, the President gave only lip service to immigration reform. He made no remarks on protecting Social Security and Medicare — just as Republicans have hinted at a coming battle over welfare reform — and only passing reference to the crowning achievement of his first term, Obamacare, just as it’s beginning to bear fruit for many Americans. And he didn’t mention the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline by name, which Republicans favor as a job-creation opportunity but the White House has said Obama would veto.
READ: Obama: ‘Tonight, we turn the page’
The speech was overall a rallying cry to progressives, a promise that he’ll put up a fight for their priorities now that he’s freed from the bounds of another reelection fight. It drew widespread praise from congressional Democrats, and near-uniform dismissal from Republicans.
But the omissions were a reminder that, though the President’s popularity is on an upswing, his legacy remains unclear and his final two years in office will still be full of challenges.
The immigration reform snub was perhaps his most glaring hole. Obama only warned against “refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” and called for empathy towards immigrants.
“Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” he said during Tuesday night’s speech.
That’s in contrast to his 2013 State of the Union speech, when he called for Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill and declared: “Let’s get this done.”
State of the Union: 68 years in 68 seconds 01:08
Even last year he demanded, “let’s get immigration reform done this year.”
On this issue, however, Obama may be feeling less urgency because he’s already done some of the work on his own, with his executive action delaying deportations for millions of immigrant families last year. But the omission underscores what a prickly subject it remains politically, one that’s already the center of another spending fight on Capitol Hill that will come to a head next month.
Last year, Obama used a sizable chunk of his SOTU to highlight the benefits Americans would receive from the Affordable Care act, even as the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov drew months of negative headlines and created headaches for vulnerable Democrats on the campaign trail.
This year, Obama’s only hint at reform was his declaration that, “in the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage.”
That silence comes despite the fact at least 6.4 million Americans signed up for coverage under the law during this year’s enrollment period, a significant spike from last year.
But Obamacare still remains unpopular, with the Real Clear Politics average of polls showing a majority of Americans still oppose it. With GOP attention focused elsewhere, the best course for the President on that issue may be to let sleeping dogs lie — especially as many Americans may face penalties when they file their taxes this year because of the law.
Obama also left off a pair of progressive pet priorities that have gotten bigger play before — gun control and campaign finance reform.
With the Senate in Democratic hands last year, Obama pledged to “keep trying” to reduce gun violence; this year, he avoided the topic altogether.
And though the speech came on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision, which opened the floodgates for big-money donors to influence elections, Obama didn’t talk about super PACs or public financing for campaigns.
Still, with historic references to transgender and lesbian individuals, and a call for tax hikes on the wealthy, most progressives had little to complain about on Tuesday night.