The trick in these speeches--Obama's and every president's--is to fire up the base, but also to word proposals so that they sound completely uncontroversial. It's a tough rhetorical line to walk. (And presidents have a pretty low success rate when it comes to getting their SOTU proposals enacted.)
It's particularly tough right now. The environment is so partisan that one poll before the speech showed how support for some of Obama's proposals rises and falls dramatically based on whether his name is attached to them. Ask Republican voters how they feel about a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, for example, and 60 percent support it. Tell them that's Obama's plan, though, and support drops to 39 percent.
So, while the President's speech was a call to action for the middle class, the really interesting stuff came in his direct challenges to Congress. With that in mind, here are the five biggest partisan lightning rods from Obama's speech Tuesday evening.
"Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away," Obama challenged. All of which is great, but the President wasn't successful on immigration reform in 2009, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Even though polls show Americans want action on this issue, the parties are sharply divided on how to go about it.
Minimum Wage Increase
In the abstract, increasing the minimum wage shouldn't be all that controversial. I mean, if you're working for $7.25 an hour, it's kind of hard not to feel sympathy for you. (Though there are economic arguments bolstering both sides.) But, an increase has very little chance of getting through the House. And let's not forget, as Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times tweeted, "Minimum wage increase was a 2008 Obama campaign proposal, too. Only in 2008 it was $9.50. Now it's only $9.00."
Tax Reform & Debt Ceiling
Seems like everybody should be in favor of closing loopholes and reforming the tax code when you put it this way, right? But hidden in plain sight in the president's remarks was a real challenge, calling out the Republicans for linking a rise in the debt ceiling, without which the government could default, to tax reform.
"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," Obama said.
On this one, you almost don't need to go beyond the text of the speech.
Obama urged Congress to pass a climate change bill, "like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago."
However, he added a threat:
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. 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."
The President saved his boldest rhetoric for last. There's so little common ground here that basically anything Obama said on gun control was bound to be seen as super-partisan. A Republican congressman brought Ted Nugent, who keeps saying things like the President should "suck on my machine gun," as his guest. So, Obama responded by framing a failure to vote on gun control as a personal affront to Gabby Giffords and the families of Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn.
Bill Murphy Jr.: is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with John Burgstone), and is a former reporter for The Washington Post. @BillMurphyJr