In his first State of the Union address where what he said could not cost him an election, President Obama showed real leadership on several issues that are dear to progressives – from poor kids to climate change, gun control to the minimum wage. Here the top five moments for liberals from last night's State of the Union festivities – including an unexpected gift from GOP darling Sen. Marco Rubio.
1. The Clarion Call on Climate Change
After a re-election campaign where the climate issue disappeared behind the president's plan for an "all of the above" energy strategy, Obama last night tacked the issue directly and promised action in the face of Congress' intransigence.
"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said, calling on senators and representatives to heed the "overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it's too late." Obama urged Congress to "pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," which sounded like an effort to revive cap-and-trade. And he followed with a vow that if progress stalled, he would move on his own. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."
2. The Push for a Living Minimum Wage
To address income inequality and poverty in America, Obama made a very specific call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and to index that number to the cost of living so that workers at the bottom of the pay scale don't lose purchasing power over time. "Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty," Obama said, sounding more than a little like former president Bill Clinton.
3. The Embrace of Universal Preschool
Obama called on the federal government to partner with the states to create a system of universal preschool. "Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool," he said. "And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives."
Obama pointed to a seven-dollar return on every dollar invested in early education – down-the-road savings from "boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime" – and cited red states like Oklahoma and Georgia for proving the promise of pre-K education. "Let's do what works," he said, "and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind."
4. The Demand for a Vote on Gun Control
The most emotional moment in last night's speech came when the president demanded in no uncertain terms that Congress vote on gun control. "I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence," he said. "But this time is different." He insisted on up-or-down votes on universal background checks, tougher penalties for "buying guns for resale to criminals," and for a renewal of the assault weapons ban "to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets."
"If you want to vote no, that's your choice," the president said. "But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun." He then marshaled all of his oratorical gifts for a simple staccato theme and variation:
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
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.
5. The Sip Seen Round the World
The out-party's response to the State of the Union is pretty much always a ridiculous, made-for-TV spectacle. Though it seems a promising venue for rising stars of the opposition to go toe-to-toe with the president, in more recent years it has brought only trouble and chagrin. A couple years back, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave a response whose oratorical stylings brought unfavorable comparisons to 30 Rock's Kenneth the Page.
Last night, the GOP's latest anointed savior, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, again gave liberals much to cheer about – when he ruined whatever message he was trying to communicate with a panicked dive stage-left to cure a nasty case of cottonmouth.