The first State of the Union address since President Obama's second inauguration focused overwhelmingly on domestic policy. He devoted roughly one paragraph each to Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea, which tested a nuclear weapon on Monday. For comparison's sake, that's roughly the same amount of time he spent on cybersecurity in Tuesday's address.
Obama called for tax and entitlement reform, energy and education spending, as well as immigration reform and gun control, though he didn't offer many details on how to achieve the goals. Here's a look at the key issues Obama's hour-long speech addressed:
On the sequester
The cuts to the military in the sequester are a bad idea, Obama said, but he did not lay out a path to replacing those cuts.
"These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.
"Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits.
"That idea is even worse."
Obama acknowledged that the "biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population." He argued his Affordable Care Act reduced long-term health care costs and called for reducing taxpayer subsidies to drug companies.
"I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.… We’ll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn’t be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital—they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive."
On tax and entitlement reform
In a line reminiscent of the fiscal-cliff debate, Obama warned against cutting entitlement spending, a position that is sure to frustrate Republicans. He also acknowledged the political difficulty of reform, while implying his stay-the-course position is better.
"Why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special-interest tax breaks? How is that fair? Why is that deficit reduction is a big emergency justifying cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes? How does that promote growth? I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won’t be easy. The politics will be hard for both sides. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans. "
On jobs and the economy
Obama asked Congress to pass the jobs plan he presented to the last Congress but that did not make it to his desk. He praised American manufacturing and used some of the speech's firmest, but also flashiest, rhetoric when talking about jobs and the economy.
"Let me repeat: Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
Obama warned about the dangerous effects of climate change, strongly suggesting that superstorm Sandy was caused by global warming. He suggested the U.S. could achieve energy independence and focused on clean energy and natural gas. He called for an Energy Security Trust to use public lands for energy.
"Solar energy gets cheaper by the year—so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.
"In the meantime, the natural-gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water."
The president acknowledged rising tuition costs, proposing a scorecard that parents and students considering college can use to determine how to get the most value for their money. While he dedicated six paragraphs of the speech to education, he did not call for sweeping reforms, instead calling on colleges to "do their part to keep costs down." He asked Congress to change the Higher Education Act "so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid."
He alluded to the bipartisan agreement that has emerged since the election on immigration and called for "real reform," which he said includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a penalty, learning English, and "going to the back of the line" behind applicants already waiting before receiving citizenship. He said he would sign a comprehensive reform bill right away.
On the minimum wage
Obama called for a $9 hourly minimum wage. "It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank," he said. One state, Washington, currently mandates a minimum wage over that rate.
On Afghanistan and al-Qaida
In an announcement that was leaked earlier in the day, Obama said 34,000 U.S. troops—about half the current fighting force—will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next year. He said the U.S. is negotiating an accord with Kabul that will have two missions: training their forces so the country does not "slip into chaos" and pursuing counterterrorism efforts there. He also rejected the philosophy that led to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. Speaking of what he cast as a weakened al-Qaida, Obama said, "We don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy nations. Instead we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia."
On North Korea
Acknowledging North Korea’s nuclear-weapons test on Monday, Obama said the country "must know" that it can only achieve security if it meets its "international obligations."
Only one sentence in the speech was devoted to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He said the U.S. would do what is "necessary" to prevent the country from getting a nuclear weapon. He called for Tehran to recognize that there must be a "diplomatic solution" to the standoff between Iran and the West.
He pointed out that he signed an executive order that he said would strengthen U.S. cyber defenses. He asked Congress to pass legislation that would give the government "greater capacity to secure our networks."
On the Middle East
Obama said the U.S. would keep pressure on the Syrian regime and said America would "stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace."
On the military
Nodding to outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's order allowing women to serve in combat zones, Obama said, "We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters." He called for ensuring equal benefits for gay and straight service members and nodded to veterans and "wounded warriors."
This was by far the speech's most emotional section. Obama called for a vote on each of the gun-control proposals put forward. With Vice President Joe Biden sitting behind him wearing a green ribbon for Newtown, Obama said "a thousands birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."