President Obama focused much of his State of the Union address on the economy, but he spent roughly a third of his speaking time Tuesday night on a laundry list of issues, including climate change, gun control, immigration and ease of voting.
Mr. Obama also said the nation has a responsibility to address pay equity for women, cybersecurity, the ongoing housing slump, and ways to improve the nation’s high schools.
If Congress won’t act on climate change, he said, he would use his power as president to issues a series of executive orders to combat the effects of greenhouse gases.
The president argued that ending the scourge of mass shootings and violence by passing stricter gun control regulations is a pressing issue the country can’t avoid, along with changing our immigration laws to account for millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
“Each of these [gun] proposals deserves a vote in Congress ,” he said. “Because in the two months since Newtown, more than 1,000 birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Trying to connect some of these issues back to the economy, Mr. Obama said the time has come to change the nation’s immigration laws.
“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” he said. “And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration.”
Even before the speech began, scholars and strategists were urging the president to pare down his unwieldy second-term agenda and focus on spurring the economic growth that eluded him during his first four years in office.
“The problem with laying out an agenda, especially if you lay out a laundry list, is that nobody remembers anything and you can’t do everything,” said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “But if you lay out a few that are important to the future of the country and these are the four or two things that we’re really going to do, then you can be judged on that.”
The president also tried to bridge the divide between his inaugural address two weeks ago to his pivot to jobs and the economy. Mr. Obama’s inauguration speech focused mainly on equality and social issues instead of spurring job growth and reining in the nation’s deficits.
In his inaugural address, he devoted 19 words and one sentence to the economy and deficit reduction while giving social issues such as pay equity, same-sex marriage, immigration reform and gun control — what the president deemed “our generation’s task” — 358 words and 10 sentences and climate change 160 words and nine sentences.
Tuesday night, Mr. Obama structured the majority of his speech on jobs and the economy — mentioning one or the other at least 40 times.
Striking an aggressive and at times combative tone, Mr. Obama quickly addressed the ongoing budget battles, saying he desperately wants to find a way to avoid deep, across-the-board spending cuts that could rattle an unsteady economic recovery.
The so-called sequester would kick in March 1 with another budget deadline later that month to keep the government funded.
“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,” he said. “So 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 brinkmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.”
Before the speech, former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove mocked the idea of another pivot to the economy.
“Now the White House says it’s going to once again pivot back to the economy. Frankly, they’ve pivoted so many times, the American people’s heads are bobbing around,” Mr. Rove told Fox News.
Mr. Haskins predicted that Mr. Obama wouldn’t spend enough time, talking about the real budget constraints facing the country: the dire need to make changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security in order to keep them solvent and help the country dig out of debt.
Early in his speech, Mr. Obama said only that he “is 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, although he didn’t say exactly what those changes would entail.
“The question is whether the scope of the remedies he plans to outline will be equal to the scope of the problem,” Mr. Haskins said. “It seems that mismatch has been central in our politics for quite some time now.