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Obama: It's Not Bigger Government we Need, it's a 'Smarter' One

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(Washington, D.C.)
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
President Obama's second inaugural address was widely perceived as a throwing down of the gauntlet in how it framed his progressive faith in government and challenged his Republican political opponents in any number of ways.
Given that, expect to see more glove-throwing Tuesday as the president delivers the first State of the Union speech of his second term.
With no more presidential elections to face, Obama seems to be taking advantage of that newfound freedom to speak more forcefully on his second-term agenda items, like immigration overhaul, gun control and climate change, than he generally did during his first term.
So expect to see that increased forcefulness on display during his speech to a joint session of Congress.
Obama himself has acknowledged that he has decided to be unapologetic about his priorities. In remarks he made to House Democrats last week at their retreat, he said:
"Even as I think it's important to be humbled by the privilege of this office and the privilege of serving in the United States Congress, even as it's important not to read too much into any particular political victory - because this country is big, it is diverse, it is contentious, and we don't have a monopoly on wisdom, and we need to remember that - despite all those things, I think it's also important for us to feel confident and bold about the values we care about and what we stand for.
"And I tried to do that in my inauguration speech, and I'm hoping that we all do that over the next four years."
"His sense of self-confidence is palpable since he was re-elected," said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, in an interview. "And the American people like that," said Waldman, who was a speechwriter in former President Bill Clinton's White House. "They want a happy warrior. They want to see their president in the fight with a smile."
So, on what issues will Obama likely assert his "confident and bold" vision for the nation? Here are four. 
1) The Economy
The economy remains the most important issue to voters, judging by what they tell pollsters.
With the economy facing an immediate threat from the very real possibility of sharp cuts in federal spending starting March 1 from what's known in Washington as sequestration, Obama will no doubt again encourage lawmakers to reach an agreement before any more damage is done. Just the threat of the sequester is thought to have contributed to the economy shrinking in the fourth quarter of 2012.
Obama has advocated that the sequester be replaced by a package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would raise more revenue in part by closing tax loopholes, especially those benefiting taxpayers at the top of the income ladder. Republicans have said any proposals that include new revenue are dead on arrival.
Expect Obama to insist, as he has in the past, that it's essential that any approach to fiscal responsibility be "balanced," with spending cuts and new revenue both contributing to cutting deficits. And expect him to indicate that he will give no ground on this. Spending cuts alone, he has said, will lead to reductions in the kinds of federal spending on education and research that would eventually limit economic growth.
Obama is sure to frame the issue not just in fairness terms but also as essential to faster economic growth. As he told House Democrats last week:
"Over the next four years, as I work with this caucus and every caucus, the question I will ask myself on every item, every issue is, 'Is this helping to make sure that everybody has got a fair shot and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules?' Because I believe that is a growth agenda - not just an equity agenda, not just a fairness agenda - that is a growth agenda. That is when we have grown fastest.
"And that means that what you'll hear from me next week, I'm going to be talking about making sure that we're focused on job creation here in the United States of America."
2) Immigration
Obama promised during his re-election campaign to make overhaul of the nation's Immigration laws a second-term priority. He has expressed support for a recently unveiled bipartisan Senate package of principles that would provide a path to legalization for many undocumented immigrants now in the country.
The Republican leadership's choice of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to present the GOP response may indicate that they expect immigration to be a key part of the president's speech, and they want to be a party to framing the debate before the American people. Rubio, a Cuban-American, was among the bipartisan group of senators who unveiled the recent immigration proposal. Thus, he puts an immigration-friendly face on a party that has shown weakness in that area.
3) Gun Control
After the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, Obama made increased gun control a priority. At the top of the list is his push for universal background checks, regardless of whether weapons are bought from retailers - which now must do checks - or at gun shows, where buyers need not be checked. Other priorities are a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and a prohibition on high-capacity gun magazines that can hold anywhere from 20 rounds to 100 rounds.
"The majority of responsible gun owners recognize we cannot have a situation in which 20 more of our children, or 100 more of our children, or 1,000 more of our children are shot and killed in a senseless fashion, and that there are some common-sense steps that we can take and build a consensus around," Obama told the House Democrats. "And we cannot shy away from taking those steps."
4) Climate Change
Obama's mention of global warming in his second inaugural was viewed as significant by many observers. It was a first-term priority that had gotten sidetracked by other major agenda items, such as the battle to pass the Affordable Care Act.
With Republicans now controlling the House, and the specter of Republican filibusters in a Senate run by Democrats, it's unlikely Obama could get through Congress legislation that would significantly reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
But in his inauguration, Obama couched the issue in terms of religious faith and generational equity. Thus, even though he doesn't appear to have the votes in Congress, he will have the bully pulpit to speak on an issue that could come to dwarf even the U.S. economy and jobs in terms of its importance to the average American.
Which leads to an important point. A State of the Union address isn't necessarily a laundry list of what is legislatively doable. It also has been used by presidents to describe a vision.
"It's a mistake in writing one of these speeches to think about what could only pass the Congress in the next six months," Waldman said. "The purpose really is to lay out an agenda for the country and not just a legislative agenda."
For his part, Waldman hopes Obama follows up on the reference the president made in his second inauguration speech to the nation's voting system, which finds so many Americans "forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."
"This would be a great time for him to talk at greater length about that, about what he thinks ought to happen," said Waldman of the Brennan Center, for which voting rights is a key issue for research and advocacy.
We'll know Tuesday evening whether the president decided to include the voting-rights issue, too.
But consider this: Obama knows that he is probably at the height of his second-term power right now, and with each passing month the shadow of lame-duckness looms larger over his presidency.
By the time of his 2014 State of the Union, more attention may be on congressional midterm elections than on the president's agenda. See
In his State of Union address on Tuesday, President Obama set forth a sweeping vision for his second term, tackling not only monumental issues such as entitlement and tax reform but also everyday ones like raising the minimum wage and providing universal preschool.
Coming off an inaugural address that many saw as a powerful embrace of a liberal agenda, President Obama opened the speech with a nod to bipartisanship.
"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem," he said. "They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party."
Obama asked Republicans to think about the good of the country as they work on comprehensive immigration reform and as they work toward avoiding deep spending cuts scheduled to take effect in March.
But despite those appeals, the president also had some harsh words for the GOP.
Perhaps the most pointed moment happened when he said: "Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan." When he talked about climate change, he said if Congress doesn't act, he would use executive action "to protect future generations."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio delivered the Republican response, harking back to the 2012 presidential campaign.
"More government isn't going to help you get ahead," Rubio said. "It's going to hold you back. More government isn't going to create more opportunities. It's going to limit them."
Perhaps in an effort to pre-empt that criticism, Obama said that the new initiatives outlined in his speech would not add to the deficit.
"It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," he said.
As expected, Obama also announced that he was pulling 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan, and he also pushed for more stringent gun control laws.
Without a doubt, the section on gun control was Obama's emotional climax.
Obama used two victims of gun violence in the House chambers to drive his point home. First he told the story of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old majorette gunned down just a mile from Obama's house in Chicago.
He said that the only thing he asks of Congress is that they take a vote on measures that would tighten gun laws.
"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence," he said. "They deserve a vote."
Both sides of aisles came to their feet and clapped. Obama, slowed his cadence and raised his voice.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he said. "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote."
We live blogged the address, so if you want a blow by blow, keep reading. If you don't feel like reading all of that, here's a quick recap of the initiatives proposed by the president in his speech:
- Obama proposed comprehensive immigration reform as well as comprehensive tax and entitlement reforms.
- On climate change Obama suggested a "bipartisan, market-based solution." If not, he said, he'll act through executive actions.
- On Afghanistan, he's pulling 34,000 U.S. troops out within a year.
- He's proposing a national universal preschool program.
- Obama wants Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and tie further raises to inflation.
- The president also asked Congress to simply take a vote on measures that would tighten gun laws.
- Obama proposed a commission that would take a look at the "voting experience in America."
- On the economy, Obama sent a message to Congress that allowing sequestration to go through would be a mistake. And he defiantly told Republicans: "Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan."
- Obama also proposed a free trade agrement with the European Union.
Our Earlier Updates from Tuesday:
Update at 10:44 p.m. ET. A Personal Speech:
Rubio has just wrapped up his response. In many ways, this was a deeply personal speech.
On at least four occasions, Rubio brought his experience into play. He used it to talk about higher education and Medicare. But perhaps most significantly, he used his experience to combat the attack that the GOP only cares about rich people.
He said:
"Mr. President, I still live in the same working class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They're workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They're immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy.
"The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.
"And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security."
Update at 10:34 p.m. ET. The Republican Response:
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is now delivering the Republican response. As we said earlier, Rubio is hitting Obama on taxes and spending.
Bigger government and more taxes are not the solution, says Rubio.
"Raising taxes won't create private sector jobs. And there's no realistic tax increase that could lower our deficits by almost $4 trillion," says Rubio, who is delivering his speech standing up. "That's why I hope the President will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy."
Update at 10:18 p.m. ET. Obama Concludes:
Obama has concluded his State of the Union address.
Update at 10:06 p.m. ET. Voting Commission:
As he previewed in his inaugural address, Obama is now convening a "non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America."
"When any Americans - no matter where they live or what their party - are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals," he said.
Update at 9:57 p.m. ET. Targeted Killings:
Without mentioning drones or his administration's targeted killing program, which have taken center stage the past week as Obama's secretary of defense nominee, Chuck Hagel, went through hearings, Obama defends his counterterrorism record.
He said:
"That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
Update at 9:53 p.m. ET. Federal Minimum Wage:
Here's a big headline: Obama is proposing to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. At the moment that's at $7.25 an hour.
"This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families," he said. "It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead."
Not only should it be $9 an hour, said Obama, but it should be tied to inflation, an idea "that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year."
Update at 9:49 p.m. ET. Immigration:
As expected, Obama has called for comprehensive immigration reform. He essentially stuck to the same principles - path to citizenship, more border security, pay back taxes - that he announced during a speech in January.
Update at 9:42 p.m. ET. Universal Pre-School:
Obama has just introduced a program proposal we hadn't heard much about: Universal pre-school.
"In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own," Obama said. "So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance."
ABC News reports the White House did not put a price tag on the program, but it will be included in Obama's budget.
"The idea, however, is to give state's financial support for programs designed to ensure all low- and moderate-income children have access to quality preschool. Most of the cost would ultimately be paid for by the states," ABC reports.
In a fact-sheet released by the White House, the program is described as a national initiative.
Update at 9:36 p.m. ET. On Climate Change:
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," President Obama says, adding that it's time to heed the "overwhelming judgement of science."
Obama says that the United States can stem climate change through a "bipartisan, market-based solution."
But then he issues an ultimatium that made Speaker Boehner cringe.
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
Update at 9:24 p.m. ET. A Balanced Approach:
Echoing what he has said throughout the fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama says that the deficit must be cut through a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases.
"Most Americans - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents - understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity," he said. "They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share. And that's the approach I offer tonight."
One of the pieces of that equation is Medicare, he said, and he's open to "additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement."
Another piece of that equation is "comprehensive tax reform." Both of those pieces will be hard and "none of us will get 100 percent of what we want," Obama said, before returning to his call for bipartisanship.
He said:
"Let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another."
Update at 9:22 p.m. ET. Nation Before Party:
Before going into a critique of the large spending cuts scheduled to take effect in March, President Obama continued to riff on the theme of working together.
He said:
"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem. They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all."
Update at 9:15 p.m. ET. Opens With Nod To Bipartisanship:
After an inaugural speech that many called a unabashed embrace of a progressive agenda, President Obama opens his address alluding to bipartisanship.
"Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that 'the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress...It is my task,' he said, 'to report the State of the Union - to improve it is the task of us all,'" Obama said.
He went on to say that the wars are coming to an end and the economy is healing.
"Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that 
Update at 9:10 p.m. ET. President Of The United States:
Introduced by the House Sergeant at Arms, President Obama is now making his way into the House chambers. As is traditional, this is where all the glad-handing happens.
In fact, some lawmakers stay in their seat all day in order to get some face-and-camera time with the president.
Update at 8:53 p.m. ET. Gavelled Into Order:
House Speaker John Boehner has just gavelled the House into order. Legislators have filed into the House chamber.
Television images showed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelley sitting in the chamber wearing green ribbons in honor of those who died in the Newtown school shootings.
Update at 8:38 p.m. ET. How Long Are These Things?
Surely, there are some out there who will wonder, "How long until we get back to the coverage of the California manhunt?"
The American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara has the answer. It'll probably be about an hour.
Most presidents have kept to it about 50 minutes. All of President Clinton's addresses, however, went over an hour. His 2000 address went to 1 hour and 28 minutes.
Obama's longest speech was in 2010, when he spoke for an hour and nine minutes.
Update at 8:28 p.m. ET. Plenty Of Bipartisanship:
In addition to Rubio's GOP response, Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky will deliver the Tea Party response.
As you might expect, he will take a less traditional route, suggesting that there is plenty of bipartisanship in Washington.
Rand will say:
"It is often said that there is not enough bipartisanship up here, that is not true. In fact, there is plenty. Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses. It is time for a new bipartisan consensus. It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud."
Update at 8:17 p.m. ET. Steven Chu Will Be Designated Survivor:
CNN's Jake Tapper tweets:
"Energy Sec'y Chu will be the Cabinet member not to attend the SOTU in one of the most uncomfortable and macabre US gov't traditions."
PBS has a great piece about the tradition. Attorney General Eric Holder was the Obama administration's first designated survivor and in 2012 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was the successor in case of a devastating event in the Capitol.
Chu is the outgoing energy secretary and he's also a Nobel prize winner. Our friend Frank called him "one of Obama's most intriguing choices."
Update at 8:08 p.m. ET. Ted Nugent Will Attend:
One of the strangest stories tonight is that Ted Nugent, the rock musician, will attend the State of the Union.
According to The Washington Post, he will be Rep. Steve Sockman's guest.
Now, if you remember back in April of 2012, the Secret Service gave Nugent a talking to after he appeared to threaten the president's life.
The Post reports that Nugent, however, has promised to behave and not bring any weapons.
NBC News' Luke Russert tweeted that he saw Nugent walking into the Capitol "with jeans, camo boots, black button down and brown blazer - no tie."
Update at 7:44 p.m. ET. Obama Preparing:
Organizing for Action, the non-profit set up to promote the White House's legislative agenda, just tweeted this photograph of the president preparing his State of the Union speech.
The photograph shows Obama with outgoing speechwriter Jon Favreau on his left and his new speechwriter Cody Keenan on his right.
This will be Keenan's first big test.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press briefing last week that Keenan had taken the lead for this speech and "will be getting a higher profile in the weeks to come."
"These are speeches that the President takes very seriously," Carney said. "He's a writer himself, so he engages at a very deep level on the framing of a speech, on the writing of it and the editing of it and the shaping of it."
Earlier today, Pete Souza, the White House's official photographer, tweeted a picture showing Obama conferring with first lady Michelle Obama and her chief of staff in the White House's colonnade
Update at 7:33 p.m. ET. Free Enterprise Is Path To Middle Class:
In his response to President Obama, Rubio will argue that a free enterprise system without Washington interference creates a stronger middle class.
"Presidents in both parties - from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan - have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity," Rubio will say, according to excerpts released by his office. "But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems."
He'll go on to say:
"The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."
Update at 7:23 p.m. ET. Troop Withdrawals:
As Mark told us over at the Two-Way, the Associated Press has already reported that one of President Obama's big announcements will be that 34,000 U.S. troops will be back home from Afghanistan within a year.
"That's about half the U.S. forces currently serving there, and marks the next phase in the administration's plans to formally finish the war by the end of 2014," the AP reports.
Other outlets have reported:
- "The president is also expected to announce his intention to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement with the 27-member European Union." (New York Times)
- "In his address, the president will again discuss his plans to avoid the automatic cuts - known as the sequester - with what he calls a more balanced approach of more targeted cuts and spending, and requiring the wealthy "to pay their fair share," according to the talking points." (Washington Post)
As we've noted, Obama is also expected to renew his calls for more stringent gun control laws and new legislation that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the Untied States.
Update at 7:01 p.m. ET. 'Our Unfinished Task':
According to excerpts released by the White House, President Obama will focus on the "unfinished task" of restoring America's middle class.
The president will say:
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth - a rising, thriving middle class.
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country - the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours."
Obama will also say that even though he is suggesting new proposals, they will not "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 will say.
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