WASHINGTON—“It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong,” said President Barack Obama in the opening moments of his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
He then spent most of the next hour explaining how big government is the solution to virtually every problem ailing the country.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle came together on Tuesday for Obama’s fifth State of the Union, a speech that was long on rhetoric and short on new ideas—and unlikely to change the president’s lackluster approval numbers ahead of the midterm elections in November.
At times Obama sounded more like a cheerleader than the president. “Get those bills to my desk to put more Americans back to work,” he said, touting a laundry list of proposals—ranging from patent reform to universal access to pre-K education—with a more pleading than commanding tone.
After a year in which legislative accomplishments were scarce, the president said he is “eager” to work with Congress, but he threatened to use executive orders to get around congressional gridlock: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Obama urged Congress to do more to help entrepreneurs and small business owners, but many economists believe one of his biggest objectives, raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, would only hurt businesses and raise the unemployment rate.
“We need sound economic and fiscal policies that expand opportunities for all small businesses,” the National Association of the Self-Employed’s Katie Vliestra said in response to the speech, adding that reducing the individual tax rate, eliminating the healthcare penalty, and reinstating the self-employment tax deduction on health insurance are the best ways to help small businesses.
The president didn’t bring up healthcare until 40 minutes into his remarks—and even then he didn’t mention any problems with the law. Democrats saved their most boisterous cheer of the night for when Obama said the American people don’t want to “have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.” That assertion will be tested at the ballot box in November.
The millions of Americans who have lost their health insurance in recent months likely found the evening unsatisfying: The president didn’t acknowledge them, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who gave the official Republican response, only offered a mention of those who are suffering under the weight of the president’s signature legislation.
Instead, Rodgers, who is chair of the House Republican Conference, delivered personal remarks that touched on big themes more than specific solutions. “Tonight the president made more promises that sound good but won’t actually solve the problems facing Americans,” she said. “Right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”
In the Tea Party response, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, acknowledged income inequality as a problem but said the federal government is trapping more people in poverty than helping them out of it. “Every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests,” Lee said. “Throughout the last five years, President Obama has promised an economy for the middle class, but all he’s delivered is an economy for the middle-men.”
While Democrats faithfully applauded Obama’s domestic agenda, they were less receptive when the president veered into foreign policy late in the speech. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not clap when the president compared U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union. Only a smattering of Democratic lawmakers applauded when Obama threatened to veto any bill that would put in place additional sanctions. (The House voted 400-20 last year to increase Iran sanctions.)
Some of the most chilling words of the night came when the president acknowledged the al-Qaeda threat has “evolved” in various parts of the world. Translation: It appears al-Qaeda now controls more territory in the Arab world than at any time in its history. Obama vowed to keep working with foreign partners to disrupt terror networks and combat new threats, including cyberattacks.
“Much of the Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia is in chaos,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said after the address. “The terrorist threat has evolved and spread. Saying we are more secure, as the president did, doesn’t make it so.”
NOTABLE: Among the noteworthy members of the audience: Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., invited the mother and sister of Kenneth Bae, an American Christian imprisoned in North Korea, to attend the event. Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson, son of Phil and Kay Robertson, was also in the audience as a guest of Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., for whom Robertson campaigned last year.