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Ten Things We Learned From the State of the Union Address

Before it all fades from memory — President Obama’s declaration that “the state of our union is stronger,” and his proposals to finish the task “to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few” — it’s worth looking back at what happened Tuesday night at the Capitol.

  1. This was a different speech from the inaugural address three weeks earlier. The former laid out a lofty political philosophy. The latter added detail and connected policy goals to the plight of real people — millions of American men, women and children who the president argued are being denied the opportunity to realize their dreams.

  2. The president is hitching his wagon to the middle class. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”

  3. But he’s also concerned about the poor: “Tonight, let us declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” he said as he called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour, in one step raising the incomes of millions of working families.

  4. President Obama is even more committed to the idea that education is essential to economic growth than he was when he entered office. His proposals to make “high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” to “make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job,” and that “colleges must do their part to keep costs down,” were described as essential to filling the jobs of the future.

  5. He’s not embarrassed to pull out old chestnuts, like a push for repairs to the nation’s aging infrastructure, and a call to raise the minimum wage, neither one of which got traction in his first term.

  6. The president is also not shy about proposing entirely new “mini-government” initiatives – like partnering with “20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet,” or working to “strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood.” We’re waiting for details on how he pulls off those last two.

  7. He hasn’t given up on working with Republicans, but he’s not as willing to negotiate as he was during his first four years in office. “So let’s set party interests aside,” he appealed when discussing the budget, but, “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”

  8. The president is prepared to make “modest reforms” in Social Security and Medicare, but nothing more — not yet anyway — even if it means there won’t be big deficit reduction in the near term, and even if it leads to a government shutdown.

  9. He seems committed to passing gun control legislation, especially “background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.” All he asked members for, however, is that proposals come up for a vote, saying, “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice.”

  10. He still knows how to deliver a speech. For one solid hour, the president poured energy and emphasis into his fifth State of the Union address. While House Speaker John Boehner sat behind him, expressionless, and (we learn) many cable TV viewers distracted by split screens with news updates on a police manhunt in California, President Obama kept going, leaning in, changing expression, lifting and then lowering his voice, clearly trying to hold on to his audience.

There’s no way to know how many of his long list of suggestions will bear fruit, but he’s begun his second term by spelling out what he wants and urging the rest of us to at least have a conversation about it.

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