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.