(Photo: Reuters/Larry Downing)
President Barack Obama's theme for his fifth State of the Union address was "opportunity for all." The ambitiousness of his theme, though, was not matched by his legislative proposals. The speech was mostly a list of executive actions and lacked any new major legislative agenda to address equality of opportunity.
While some pundits predicted that inequality would be the main theme, Obama only used the word "inequality" three times. Instead, he chose to go with the more broadly accessible and less politically charged theme of "opportunity," a word he used 12 times.
"Opportunity is who we are," Obama said. "And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."
What unites Americans, he added, is the belief in the opportunity to become successful.
"And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all - the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."
Obama was clear, though, that he is not expecting much congressional action but will make changes through executive action.
"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," he said.
Of the legislation Obama did mention, he mostly asked Congress to finish work on bills it is already working on, and he provided little detail about what he wanted to see in those bills. For instance, he asked Congress to finish work on immigration reform, infrastructure funding, patent reform and an extension of unemployment benefits.
His only new legislative proposals were funding for natural gas fueling stations, universal pre-K (a request, he noted, he also made last year), Voting Rights Act reforms, and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Much of the speech, though, was focused on what he would do using executive orders. He announced, for instance, an increase in the minimum wage for workers hired under new government contracts, and a modification to an existing retirement savings program, called "MyRA" (instead of "IRA"), that will allow for payroll deductions directly to a retirement account.
One of the biggest applause lines of the speech came when Obama mentioned Speaker of the House John Boehner: "... here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams. That's what drew our forebears here. It's how ... the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House."
Later in the speech, Obama spoke again about hard work and the dignity of work as he described the link between opportunity and American ideals.
"But we know our opportunity agenda won't be complete," he said, "and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American dream as an empty promise - unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American."