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What did Obama just say? Experts read between the lines

BY and   January 13, 2016 at 1:26 AM EDT
View of his notes as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. Image by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

View of his notes as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. Image by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President Barack Obama spent his final State of the Union speech last night defending his record in office on everything from climate change and healthcare to national security and education.

But his legacy is complicated, and understanding it requires some real insight into the history and politics of his tenure. So we’ve gathered a group of experts to provide analysis on the speech, and to offer their take on nine key policy areas.


Cutting the red tape

“I believe a thriving private sector is the lifeblood of our economy. I think there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut.”

Paul Solman

Paul Solman

It would be good for Democrats if they realized the extent to which this line resonated, and not only in the hall of Congress. It may well be true, as the President said, that Americans have lost trust in government because special interests dominate in Washington and have, they think, rigged the game against them. But it is also true that regulations can be stifling, regulators imperious and arbitrary, and that to the extent the Democratic Party is identified with Big Government, it is vulnerable.

I wouldn’t bet on it, any more than I’d bet on winning Powerball tomorrow, but it would certainly be intriguing if President Obama were to make the cutting of red tape an economic theme of his last year in office.

Paul Solman, PBS NewsHour Business and Economics Correspondent


Middle Eastern allies

“Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Moscow or Beijing, they call us.”

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Middle Eastern allies, especially in the Gulf, have either concluded that the U.S. is not serious about leading any more in their region or has abandoned their interests. The Saudi-Iranian flare up is just one of many examples of how key societies are no longer looking to American leadership — not because they don’t want it, but because they don’t believe it is presently available. One question is whether this is an “Obama issue” that will change with the next administration or an “America issue” that is a permanent alteration in approach. Only time will tell.

Hussein Ibish, Senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.


Fundamental science investment

“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there. We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and 12 years later, we were walking on the moon.”

Miles O'Brien

Money spent by the federal government on basic research and development has dropped precipitously as a percentage of gross domestic product during the Obama years. In 2008, the expenditure equated to 1 percent of the gross domestic product. Today it is less than .8 percent. Hardest hit: so-called basic research, the kind of science that does not promise an immediate payoff in some technological advance. But there is a direct line between research at the basic level and everyday items we take for granted; like the smartphone you are using to read this. There was a time when the private sector was willing to make long-term investments in fundamental science, but those days are long gone. It’s important that the political world understand that if our government doesn’t invest in fundamental science, others most certainly will.

Miles O’Brien, PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent


Our carbon footprint

“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from old, dirtier energy sources. Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future, especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. We do them no favor when we don’t show them where the trends are going. And that’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”

Juliet Eilperin

In a speech with few policy proposals, this one mattered. For months, administration officials have been looking at whether to raise the royalty rate for coal mining on federal land. Right now, firms pay a 12.5 percent royalty rate on such leases, compared to 18.75 percent for offshore oil and gas leases. Many environmentalists are now waging a campaign to keep all remaining fossil fuels “in the ground,” and while Obama did not go that far, this proposal will make digging for coal on public land and drilling for oil and gas in federal waters more expensive. Accused of waging “a war on coal,” Obama sought to mollify Americans in mining country by pledging to direct any additional revenue to fund transportation projects there. But this proposal, along with the comments Obama made, mocking those who question the science of climate change, made it clear he will spend his last year in office pursuing a suite of policies aimed at cutting the nation’s carbon footprint even further.

Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post White House Bureau Chief


Being the world’s policeman

“We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis… Fortunately, there’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.”

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The president doesn’t want America to be the world’s policeman. On issues of “global concern,” like the civil war in Syria, he wants to mobilize others to “pull their own weight.” But the Syrian civil war is a good example of why his approach doesn’t always work. Most of our regional partners are sitting back and letting the United States fight ISIS. And none of them like our Assad policy. It’s tough to mobilize others when they don’t like our policy or prefer to hitch a free ride rather than pull their own weight.

William McCants, Senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World



Ongoing health care debate

“That’s why Social Security and Medicare are more important than ever; we shouldn’t weaken them, we should strengthen them. And for Americans short of retirement, basic benefits should be just as mobile as everything else is today. That’s what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It’s about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when we lose a job, or go back to school, or start that new business, we’ll still have coverage. Nearly eighteen million have gained coverage so far. Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.”
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President Obama called on Republicans to “strengthen” rather than “weaken” federal entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare, a direct challenge to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP members who have said they want to make major changes to both programs. Expect the parties to continue this entitlement debate throughout the ongoing presidential and congressional campaigns.

As he has in previous State of the Union addresses, Obama praised his health care law, noting that it has provided coverage to nearly 18 million Americans. By emphasizing that the measure fills “gaps” in the employer-based system rather than replace it, that health care inflation has slowed and that job creation has increased since the law was enacted, Obama took aim at GOP charges the law has made health care more expensive and decreased access. But his last remarks before leaving this section of his speech – “Now, I’m guessing we won’t agree on health care anytime soon” – understate the ongoing opposition the health law faces from Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.

Mary Agnes Carey, Senior correspondent, Kaiser Health News


Little chance for immigration reform

“I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done. Fixing a broken immigration system…”

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Obama may keep pushing for immigration reform, but the chances of achieving it are virtually nil, given the current composition of the House. He may see hope, but the hopes of Dreamers are wearing thin with no secure future in the only country they know. Barring a major electoral upset in 2016, there is little chance for immigration reform until 2022. Whoever wins the presidency, the House will likely remain under Republican control and in thrall to Tea Party activists who are adamantly opposed to any immigration reform. Only after the 2020 census when congressional districts are reapportioned, will there be any realistic possibility of change in the House — and then it all depends on who controls the state legislatures.

Ironically, it was the Republican respondent, Nikki Haley, who spoke directly on immigration, telling Americans that “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” but urging them to “resist that temptation,” an obvious but ultimately empty attempt to balance the xenophobic vitriol of the Republican primaries. She went on to say that people who work hard and follow the laws “should never feel unwelcome in this country,” but that would seem to leave out the 11 million U.S. residents who are presently in violation of U.S. immigration law. Not much tonight for immigrants or their children.

Douglas Massey, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University


Gun violence hardly mentioned

“I will keep pushing for progress on the work that I believe still needs to be done. Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence…”

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Guns were hardly mentioned in the SOTU address. But last week, the President presented several executive actions that his Administration will implement to reduce gun violence in his moving speech at the White House. These executive actions could enhance our ability to keep guns out of the wrong hands without interfering with the ability of law-abiding adults to have guns.

Whether the President’s executive orders and political actions on gun violence have larger long-term significance depends on what he identified as “the most important thing” in his message — working together and having rational, constructive debates. He correctly states that this will happen only “if we fix our politics” to increase voter participation and decrease Congressional gerrymandering. Both he and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called for more respectful discourse and bridging of cultural divides.

Few issues epitomize the political problem more than guns. Many Republicans and Democrats may be from different worlds culturally and think differently about guns, but large majorities from each party support many specific policies that would keep guns out of the wrong hands including comprehensive background checks. Such actions would significantly reduce gun violence in America.

Such change in Congress may take the longer horizon that the President wanted to focus on in this speech (“five years, ten years and beyond”). But if voters in states with large numbers of gun owners (Nevada, Arizona, Maine) pass comprehensive background check laws through referenda in 2016 and 2017 as some predict, and a few brave souls follow referenda voters’ lead and are (re)elected, change at the federal level could accelerate.

Daniel Webster, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research


Making college affordable

“We have to make college affordable for every American. No hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We’ve already reduced student loan payments to 10 percent of a borrower’s income. And that’s good. But now we’ve actually got to cut the cost of college. Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year. It’s the right thing to do.”

lawrie mifflin

The administration’s income-driven repayment plan (often called “pay as you earn”), in which students pay back college loans as a fixed percentage of their future income, has proved popular, and has helped reduce the number of Americans who default on their loans. Less publicized are the many reasons students fail to take advantage of these grants, ranging from confusing application forms to ignorance of the rules or even the availability of grants to the part-time or in-school-then-out-awhile pace at which many low-income students attend community college. Cutting the actual cost of college is a far more ambitious and complicated undertaking — easy to call for, difficult to achieve.

Lawrie Mifflin, Managing editor of The Hechinger Report


Can we cure cancer?

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources they’ve had in over a decade. Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us, on so many issues over the past forty years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.”

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That’s true. December’s new spending bill offered the biggest funding boost that the NIH has received during President Obama’s presidency, aside from 2009 when the Recovery Act was in play. But that’s following more than a decade where the budget didn’t keep pace with inflation. The bill supplies the NIH with a $2 billion increase in the new year, yet this gain won’t return the agency’s budget to its peak level in 2004. When adjusting for inflation, the current allotment for the NIH falls $10 billion short of the 2004 budget.

This year’s budget does elevate funding for the National Cancer Institute by five percent, thanks in part to $70 million provided by the Precision Medicine Initiative. Joe Biden’s staff met with the nation’s leading cancer researchers last Friday to discuss plans for his “moonshot” cancer initiative. But even with this year’s fiscal bump, the National Cancer Institute funds will be six percent less than they were a decade ago.

NIH director Francis Collins described the 2016 omnibus as “the most encouraging budget outcome in 12 years” and said, “This increase comes at just the right time to take advantage of remarkable opportunities to improve human health, powered by dramatic advances in scientific knowledge and technological innovation.”

Nsikan Akpan, PBS NewsHour Science reporter and producer


Protecting the environment is a no-brainer

“…why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?”

Miles O'Brien

The conventional wisdom that Americans must make the choice between economic progress or protecting the environment is not very wise at all. Indeed, the numbers suggest it is anything but a zero-sum game. According to a report from one think tank, a clean energy economy will likely create more than 1 million additional jobs by 2030 and up to 2 million jobs in 2050 and would increase U.S. GDP by $145 billion, or 0.6 percent. And, the study estimated, a green economy would save families $5.3 billion on energy bills in 2030 and $41 billion in 2050.

Miles O’Brien, PBS NewsHour Science Correspondent

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