Obama Did Not Throw Down the Gauntlet to Republicans Last Night

The most common interpretation of last night’s State of the Union address is that it was a forceful declaration that if Congress won’t act on the important issues facing America, then by God, President Obama will act on his own. Here are some typical headlines:

New York Times: Obama Vows to Act Alone on the Economy

Washington Post: President vows to use his authority with new force

Wall Street Journal: Obama Seeks to Jump-Start Stalled Plans

It’s easy to understand how this happened. The White House apparently spent all day yesterday telling everyone that this was the president’s message, so reporters all wrote their stories in that light. And Republicans went along because the tryant Obama and his mania for Constitution-crushing executive orders is a good fundraising schtick for them. But ifyou actually listen to the speech, there’s much less of this than meets the eye. In particular, on a purely substantive level there was hardly anything. As illustration, here is Brad Plumer’s exhaustive list of seven things Obama said he’d do on his own:

  1. Boost the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour
  2. Create a basic new type of retirement savings account.
  3. Urge chief executives to end the discrimination against the long-term unemployed.
  4. Ratchet up fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
  5. Review federal job-training programs.
  6. Create four new manufacturing hubs.
  7. Set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

This list is a huge stretch. Of these things, 3 and 5 aren’t even executive orders to begin with. That leaves five items. Of those, 4, 6, and 7 are just continuations of existing programs.

So that leaves 1 and 2. Basically, in the entire speech, Obama announced that he would do two new things unilaterally: raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and create a new kind of savings bond. To call these small bore is to insult .22 caliber rifles. Micro bore is more like it, and every president has at least a few items like this in the SOTU every year.

If you listen to the actual speech Obama gave, rather than the spin the White House put on it, it really wasn’t an in-your-face challenge to Congress. There were a couple of routine shoutouts to gridlock and how the American people expect more from their public servants, and there were several places where Obama asked Congress to join him in addressing public policy problems. But honestly, that’s pretty garden variety stuff. It happens in every SOTU.

This wasn’t a declaration of independence. Obama knows perfectly well that there isn’t much he can do without Congress’s help, and for the most part he avoided confrontational language. In fact, I’d say he was more conciliatory than usual—and also, as I said last night, more relaxed and good-natured than usual. Read the speech through fresh eyes and I think you’ll see what I mean.