When it comes to President Obama’s State of the Union address, there’s text (all 6,957 words of it); context (a political campaign in full swing), and subtext (the meaning behind the words).
The speech itself rang true to Obama’s goals, temperament, and political identity. But for anyone who has been paying attention to Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates, it carried a lot of other messages as well. Here’s what Obama said, followed by what he or his strategists may have had in mind:
WHAT HE SAID: For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al-Qaida’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.
WHAT HE MEANT: I’m commander in chief, and I’ve done a damn good job at it, despite what those presidential pretenders in the other party are saying. And I’m talking about this in the first eight sentences of my speech, so even people who are rushing to change the channel will remember that I took down bin Laden and got us out of Iraq.
WHAT HE SAID: These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces.... They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.
WHAT HE MEANT: Grow up already, Congress!
WHAT HE SAID: Think about the America within our reach … An economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.
WHAT HE MEANT: Our country needs to return to the value of fairness and the durability of GM trucks, which were once marketed under the slogan “Built to last.” And by the way, I saved GM.
WHAT HE SAID: Let’s remember how we got here.… In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly 4 million jobs. And we lost another 4 million before our policies were in full effect.
WHAT HE MEANT: I inherited this mess, so don’t blame me.
WHAT HE SAID: In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.
WHAT HE MEANT: I did not make the recession worse. It’s just the opposite -- my policies are helping end it. So don’t believe anything you hear from Mitt Romney.
WHAT HE SAID: I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.
WHAT HE MEANT: Remember those recess appointments I made to two agencies you absolutely hate, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board? The ones you are probably going to challenge in court? There’s going to be more of that unless you cut deals with me, and there will be vetoes if you try to turn my administration into George W. Bush’s third term.
WHAT HE SAID: On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die.... Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s No. 1 automaker.
WHAT HE MEANT: Did I mention that I saved GM and the whole car industry? Oh, the “some” who said let it die? One of them was Mitt Romney.
WHAT HE SAID: We’ve brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate as the last administration – and it’s made a difference. Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires.... Tonight, I’m announcing the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices in countries like China.
WHAT HE MEANT: I’m tough on China. Remember that the next time Republicans bash me in a debate for letting China eat our lunch.
WHAT HE SAID: We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money.… So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.
WHAT HE MEANT: I’m on your side, middle-class families. Now that Rick Perry is out of the presidential race, I can own what could have been one of his signature issues.
WHAT HE SAID: I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. The opponents of action are out of excuses.… [I]f election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people.”
WHAT HE MEANT: Have I mentioned that I’m tough? I’ve cracked down big-time on illegal immigration. But I have a heart – especially when it comes to kids brought here illegally by their parents. And with Rick Perry out of the race, I’m going to own not only this issue but the Hispanic vote in November.
WHAT HE SAID: Most new jobs are created in start-ups and small businesses. So let’s pass an agenda that helps them succeed. Tear down regulations that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow. Expand tax relief to small businesses that are raising wages and creating good jobs.
WHAT HE MEANT: I dare you Republicans to oppose this agenda. And have I mentioned that I love capitalism?
WHAT HE SAID: Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.
WHAT HE MEANT: Solyndra, schmolyndra. Success and failure are all part of capitalism. Which we love. Right, Governor Romney?
WHAT HE SAID: Rules to prevent financial fraud, or toxic dumping, or faulty medical devices don’t destroy the free market. They make the free market work better. There is no question that some regulations are outdated, unnecessary, or too costly. In fact, I’ve approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his. I’ve ordered every federal agency to eliminate rules that don’t make sense.
WHAT HE MEANT: I love the free market and I want it to work! And I don’t love regulations! Just like the Republicans. So moderates and independents, you don’t have to flee me. I get it. I really do.
WHAT HE SAID: But I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago.… I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny you coverage, or charge women differently from men. And I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules.
WHAT HE MEANT: Have I mentioned I’m on your side? All this free-market stuff can only go so far. So liberals and progressives, you don’t have to flee me. I get it. I really do.
WHAT HE SAID: We need to change our tax code so that people like me, and an awful lot of members of Congress, pay our fair share of taxes. Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes.
WHAT HE MEANT: You may remember that Mitt Romney makes more than $20 million a year and pays a 15 percent tax rate. You may not know that under Newt Gingrich’s plan, Romney would pay no taxes at all! Have I mentioned that polls show two-thirds of the public agrees with me on this issue?
WHAT HE SAID: Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better.
WHAT HE MEANT: Do you really want a president who is chomping at the bit to start a war against Iran? Then vote for a Republican. I might start that war, but I might not.
WHAT HE SAID: America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.… America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs. And as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way.
WHAT HE MEANT: I am not a wimp or a failure on the world stage, or an apologist for America, or a manager of our decline. And I don’t lead from behind. So all that stuff you’re hearing in these endless GOP debates? Forget about it.