Of Mad Men, Pen in 'Action,' and Al-Qaeda in 'Defeat': Obama's State of the Union

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's big surprises in Tuesday night's State of the Union were supposed to center around his executive actions and a pledge to unite Congress around his "opportunity" ideas while simultaneously vowing to bypass the legislative branch to shift his "year of action" into gear.

In the end, the 65-minute speech -- the second-longest since Obama has been in office -- included those threats of unilateral action, tried to butter up House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with a standing ovation, brushed over or avoided key foreign policy issues, and dropped a reference to AMC's Mad Men when talking about women's rights.

The White House announced the main executive action earlier in the day, a plan to raise the minimum wage required of federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was in the gallery during the speech to loudly cheer this plan.

"Americans understand that some people will earn more money than others, and we don't resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. That's what America's all about. But Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," Obama said. "…Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board."

The other executive actions announced will be to create the "myRA" starter retirement savings accounts, to launch four new manufacturing institutes, and to expand and enhance SelectUSA to attract investment.

"For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It's an important debate, one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy -- when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States -- then we are not doing right by the American people," Obama said.

Some of his agenda items targeted at the middle class require congressional action, the president admitted. "But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do," Obama added.

The speech contained a multitude of rehashed policy points about tax reform, education partnerships, manufacturing revival, and an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that focuses on alternative fuels.

"The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled: Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say: 'Yes, we did,'" he said.

The president also announced he would be "reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential."

"But we know our opportunity agenda won't be complete and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American dream as an empty promise unless we also do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work and hard work pays off for every single American."

Obama rallied his party most with lines about equal pay for equal work, calling it an "embarrassment" that women "make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns."

"Now, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or a sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what? A father does, too," he said. "It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let's all come together -- Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street -- to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe, when women succeed, America succeeds."

Among the excited lawmakers, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) began high-fiving colleagues sitting around her.

He gave the usual talking points on Obamacare, admonishing Congress to "not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans."

"I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31st. Help them get covered. Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application. It will give her some peace of mind, and plus, she'll appreciate hearing from you. After all, that's the spirit that has always moved this nation forward. It's the spirit of citizenship."

The speech was light on foreign policy but Obama claimed once again that "we've put al-Qaeda's core leadership on a path to defeat" and lauded the imminent end of U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan. "We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us: large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism," he said.

He received less applause when he threatened to veto a bipartisan Iran sanctions bill that already has racked up big chunks of support in both chambers.

"These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran's support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threatens our allies, and we're clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don't rely on trust," Obama said. "…For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."

The loudest, most sustained applause of the night was for wounded warrior Cory Remsburg, who was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. He sat between first lady Michelle Obama and his dad, Craig. "Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit," the president said.

The official GOP response, delivered by House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), was a well-delivered speech tailored more at introducing Americans to the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress than delivering specific policy points to fire back at the president's address.

"Every day, we're working to expand our economy, one manufacturing job, nursing degree, and small business at a time. We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school, so college is affordable, and skills training is modernized," McMorris Rodgers said. "And, yes, it's time to honor our history of legal immigration. We're working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world."

"And with too many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, we have solutions to help you take home more of your pay, through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs, and affordable healthcare… So we hope the president will join us in a year of real action, by empowering people, not by making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs."

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this year's response from the party was "a personal message that transcended politics," as McMorris Rodgers spoke of working through college at McDonald's and raising a Down syndrome child while in Congress.

"After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas. With few bipartisan proposals, Americans heard a president more interested in advancing ideology than in solving the problems regular folks are talking about. Instead of our areas of common ground, the president focused too much on the things that divide us – many we’ve heard before – and warnings of unilateral action," Boehner said. "The president must understand his power is limited by our constitution, and the authority he does have doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said if Obama "really wants a ‘Year of Action,’ there are plenty of good ideas that the two parties can agree on: passing House-approved jobs bills in the Senate designed to get Americans back to work, revenue-neutral tax reform, trade promotion legislation, and the Keystone pipeline."

"He even tried to sell Kentucky’s Obamacare bureaucracy as a success story, but he failed to mention the stories that I’m hearing from Kentuckians: restricted access to doctors and hospitals, lost jobs, lower wages, fewer choices, higher costs," McConnell said. "Thanks to Obamacare, more than a quarter million Kentuckians received cancellation notices for plans they had and presumably wanted to keep and premiums have increased an average of 47 percent in Kentucky according to a recent survey, and in some cases more than 100 percent."

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) noted that while Obama defended his signature healthcare law, he didn't offer any plan "to give Americans relief from Obamacare."

"The disastrous healthcare law has led businesses to stop hiring and lay off workers – making it even more difficult for our nation’s unemployed to find work," Sessions said. "Despite the president’s promises, Obamacare also forced millions off of their preferred insurance plans, while causing premiums and out of pocket costs to skyrocket for families and businesses."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said he was "saddened that the commander in chief missed another shot at leadership."

“Success in Afghanistan could have been President Obama’s finest hour. I take no joy in the fact that this speech devotes twice as much text to celebrate a diplomatic agreement that allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium and develop longer range ballistic missiles than it does in supporting the success of the mission of our sons in daughters in harm's way today," McKeon said. "It would not surprise me if our adversaries sense, like me, our commander's reluctance to do what needs to be done to keep America safe."

Two senators promoting school choice in conjunction with the State of the Union said Obama decried income inequality without acknowledging the first solution.

“I would have preferred to hear the president give a real answer to income inequality, and the first real answer is to liberate the free enterprise system from Obama regulations so it can create more good new jobs,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. “The second real answer is to give parents more freedom to choose a better school for their child, and today I introduced legislation to do just that by allowing $2,100 federal scholarships to follow 11 million low-income children to the schools they attend."

"Instead of pouring more federal money into education, let’s expand choice and put decision-making back in the hands of parents and teachers. Instead of making it harder for small businesses and their employees to grow and prosper, let’s make sure our tax code and regulatory system create the right environment for growth," said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

The chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee said "rather than trying to write laws from the Oval Office, [Obama] should put down his pen, pick up the Constitution, and start working with Congress to solve the problems facing our nation."

"Under our Constitution, President Obama cannot rewrite laws with his pen, but he can approve the Keystone XL Pipeline and create 20,000 good jobs with one quick signature," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. “While President Obama made more hollow promises during his State of the Union address, he failed to explain why his IRS targets certain citizens who disagree with his policies."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who got a name-drop from Obama when the president talked about strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, said "the heart of his 2014 agenda is clearly more about working alone than with the American people’s representatives on the major reforms we need."

Democrats generally cheered the address, with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) calling it “a home run on economic opportunity, and a grand slam on veterans."

"I am very glad that President Obama doubled down on his commitment to a national preschool initiative that will not only help our youngest children and pay dividends in future economic growth, but also empower millions of women who would be able to go to work and give back to their communities,"  said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.). "I challenge anyone to explain to me why this should be a partisan issue."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he was glad that global warming got a mention. "The harmful effects of climate change, specifically sea-level rise and extreme weather events, pose a unique and serious threat to my coastal home state of Delaware," Carper said.

“Because of the obstructionist Tea Party Republicans in this Congress, we have made little progress on this and many other issues, like creating jobs, reforming our broken immigration system, combating climate change, ending gun violence, and advancing equal pay," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). "I’m pleased the president committed to using his executive powers to help reignite the American dream.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), though, said "while I understand and even appreciate President Obama’s commitment to making at least some progress in the coming year through executive orders, he should not give up on working with Congress."

"Now more than ever, the country can’t afford for Republicans and Democrats in Washington to remain paralyzed," Coons added.

"While the president delivered a lot of sound bites that may sound good in a speech, we need to hear a clear plan and commitment to economic growth. Specifically, the president missed his chance to talk about national energy security in any meaningful way," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

“I also have concerns about some of the president's comments to increase his executive power on issues where Congress should play a pivotal role.… I will not sit back and watch any sort of power grab."