Some words missing from tonight's State of the Union address: Iraq. Famine. Sudan. Moon. Mars. Assault rifles. Keystone XL. Videogames. Clinton. Fracking.
The State of the Union is the most public of events but it’s also filled with hidden meanings. The president is explicit at times saying he wants this or that--a higher minimum wage, a “National Energy Trust”--and at other times it’s more obtuse, deliberately so. Omissions mean as much as commissions.
So here are five moments of the State of the Union address, decoded for greater understanding:
1. Deflating the deficit. Obama said: “Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion -- mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction.”
What he meant: Reality check. Technically he's right; Congress has made cuts from future growth. But the deficit has grown remarkably under Obama’s watch to over 100 percent of GDP. Whether you blame the president or the recession for that is one issue. What’s indisputable is that Obama wants to portray the deficit as a problem that’s on its way to resolution and one that can be worked out with more bipartisanship.
But the effort to reframe the debate is a tricky one. Republicans have made the deficit and spending the centerpiece of all they do, and while it didn’t help them in the last election, it’s still a message that rallies their base and their legions in Congress. Obama could have adopted some of their urgency but he chose not to, instead making spending and deficit reduction less of a priority. This will play well to Democrats and Paul Krugman readers but it may not be the best way to win GOP votes that he’ll need for passage. After all, the tax increase he got through Congress was a lucky break, the result of the Bush tax cuts expiring. It won’t be nearly so easy this year as he attempts to get a GOP-controlled House to sign on to his “balanced” approach to deficit reduction.
2. The clock is ticking on immigration. The president said this about immigration: “In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now, let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”
What he meant: The president doesn’t have a lot of time to get this done. There’s a rare burgeoning bipartisan consensus for immigration reform and the longer time passes before a vote, the more likely the idea is likely to die. It’s the basic law of congressional inertia that ideas rarely gather strength over time. Obama is also signaling to Hispanic groups that he understands their urgency. The president kicked immigration reform to his second term and some of his erstwhile allies are still miffed.
3. Drones, what drones? What he said: “Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups have emerged -- from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations.... Where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
What he meant: President Obama faces a tricky moment on al-Qaida. He has to declare enough victory in Afghanistan to justify leaving while pointing America towards a long twilight challenge from a constellation of al-Qaida franchises. It’s telling that he uses the mealy-mouth phrase “a range of capabilities” when he surely means drones, special forces, and the like. He doesn’t want to define this new phase of the war too specifically.
4. Gun control is about a vote. The president said: They deserve a vote. They, of course, are gun-violence victims. The vote is on some of his proposals. It’s not surprising he brought up the issue. What is interesting is the way he framed it.
What he meant: The president’s rousing call for a vote on gun issues puts the onus on his opponents and spares him having to promise success. Just a vote is all he asks. And by mentioning the slew of mass shootings in disparate corners of the country he made it a national problem. It’s probably the best play for a president who doesn’t have an easy way to get this through.
5. Tax Reform: I’m for it. Now show me a plan. The president talked up tax reform: “Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.”
What he meant: Hey, I’m not going to send you a comprehensive tax plan, you gotta come up with it. That may be too lax. The Reagan Treasury Department goosed tax reform in 1986 and the president is already counting on Congress to work up an immigration plan. This is one area where he could help Congress from taking too much shrapnel by proposing some reforms. What he told us is that he won’t.