"Obama’s Last State Of The Union: A Report Card"
On January 28, President Barack Obama (D) will deliver the country’s 93rd State of the Union address. He will lay out proposals to move the country forward in the new year. But how did Obama stack up on those proposals that he laid out last year? With an obstinate Congress determined to foil any plan he set forward, did Obama manage to accomplish anything he pledged to do in 2013? We took a look back:
Then: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. We should be able to get that done.”
Now: Obama has actually moved toward a more progressive position on the minimum wage. Two months after he called for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union last year, two members of Congress simultaneously introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10. Obama came out in support of that bill, upping the minimum wage he supported by over a dollar. The legislation didn’t go anywhere, though; House Republicans roundly voted down the effort. The Senate has not taken up the bill.
Status? Making progress, but it’s an uphill battle.
Then: “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Now: Obama has made good on this promise — taking the go-it-alone route, of course. In June, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to limit the carbon emissions of new power plants — something that climate deniers and the pro-fossil fuel community have dubbed a “War on Coal.” New plants need to cut their emissions by 600 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, and the EPA will soon roll out rules for existing plants. But Obama’s administration is operating on both sides of the coin: It is also responsible for clearing the way for massive oil production within the United States, which has led to a rise in carbon pollution. Making drilling easier was actually also a proposal in Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, so in that way, he was fully successful.
Status? Getting there!
Then: “In fact, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. “
Now: Climate advocates are actually grateful that this proposal never got off the ground. While it sounds like a good thing for innovation and clean energy, the Energy Security Trust would have included natural gas as a “clean” energy. And, in order to raise the money for the Trust, Republican legislators were trying to force Obama to open up drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic coast, as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Status? Dead in the water.
Then: “Now is the time to get it done.
Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my administration has already made — putting more boots on the Southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
Now: Immigration reform was a total bust in 2013, but not for a lack of trying. Obama and Democratic members of Congress pushed fiercely for comprehensive reform, forming an immigration “Gang of Eight,” passing a 1,000+ page bill in the Senate, and trying to negotiate with House Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) who simply refused to bring forward a comprehensive bill. That effort has yielded little in the way of results for citizenship for the undocumented. But Obama has kept his promise to keep “boots on the ground.” The administration has maintained a record number of border patrol agents at the southern border. Deportations, on the other hand, were 10 percent lower in 2013.
Status? Left unaccomplished in 2013.
Then: “So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.”
Now: In his annual budget released in 2013, Obama called for a $75 billion investment in preschool programs over the next decade, which would make pre-k more affordable to middle- and low-income children, bringing the country nearer to his goal of preschool for all. That funding never passed. In fact, right at the beginning of the year, Congress did the opposite: By failing to settle on a budget deal, they allowed across-the-board budget cuts to kick in under sequestration, a move that kicked 57,000 kids out of the early childhood education program Head Start. In the budget just signed by President Obama, Congress reversed course again, dedicating $250 million (a fraction of the funding Obama wanted) to expand preschool at the state level. The budget also allocated $500 million to Head Start. Meanwhile, state-level politicians are starting to propose their own universal preschool schemes. New York, Maryland, California, Maine, Indiana and South Carolina are all working on preschool-for-all programs.
Status? They’re working on it.
Then: “Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before, so what are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill.”
Now: A week after Obama called for this mortgage refinancing bill to be passed, Associated Press ran the headline, “Mortgage Bill Faces Tough Road In Congress.” “While the bill could gain traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate,” the article predicted, “it faces a rough road in the GOP-run House, where many Republicans favor scaling back the government’s role in the housing market as a way of aiding the economy.” That prophecy was spot-on. The Responsible Homeowner Refinancing Act of 2013 — which would have helped homeowners refinance more easily by reducing fees and qualifying more mortgages — was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) but never made it out of Republican-controlled committee. Neither did its House counterpart.
Status? A flop.
Then: “Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Now: Nuclear negotiations with Iran, while precarious, are perhaps the biggest accomplishment for Obama’s administration in 2013. In November, six major world powers signed a temporary six month agreement that requires Iran to eliminate its stockpile of uranium (the key ingredient in nuclear weapons) that’s been enriched to 20 percent, and submit to inspections of its facilities — all while working on a longer-term deal to further reduce their weapons-making capacity. But Congress may derail these negotiations; several members have signaled that they want to enforce additional sanctions on Iran. That could kill the deal and actually push the country closer to making a nuclear bomb.
Status? The outlook is tentatively good.
Then: “Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.
Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.”
Now: Though they may deserve a vote in Congress, the gun-related policies Obama laid out didn’t get one. At least, not fully. Two months after the State of the Union, the Senate voted on a proposal known as “Toomey-Manchin” that would have expanded background checks on gun sales to include sales at gun shows and pawn shops, sales which are currently excluded. The proposal failed to garner enough votes to even make it to the House for consideration. Members of Obama’s own party are partly to blame. Four Democrats, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Max Baucus (D-MT), and Mark Begich (D-AK) all opposed the bill, and while it did enjoy the support of a large majority of Senators, it did not have enough votes to overcome a filibuster. Other efforts to tighten gun laws considered as part of the same bill — including an assault weapons ban and a high-capacity magazine ban — also failed. An amendment included in the same bill that would have weakened gun laws by allowing concealed carry permits to carry over between states, on the other hand, garnered more votes than background checks did.
Status? To the dismay of many advocates, no real progress has been made.
Then: “And this year, my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We’ll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, and education, and housing.”
Now: Just two weeks ago, Obama rolled out five of the 20 communities he plans to focus on, calling them “Promise Zones.” They are Philadelphia, San Antonio, Southeastern Kentucky, Los Angeles, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The initiative doesn’t bring any new funding to these communities. Rather, it brings in the assistance of nonprofit groups and companies, along with extra federal attention, to “aid in cutting through red tape to get access to existing resources.” Since the Promise Zones are an executive action that doesn’t rely on Congressional approval, Obama can focus getting them, along with the new initiatives he’ll announce next week, accomplished in 2014.