During Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama raised several issues and initiatives that require a deeper explanation. Here are some of those passages.
Statement: "In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn't agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars' worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness."
Context: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the $500 billion in automatic budget cuts forced by the cuts, known as sequestration, on the Pentagon over the next decade would render the U.S. military a "second-rate power." The cuts will go into effect March 1 unless Congress and the White House can reach a deal.
The cuts will force the Pentagon to change the way it trains, defense analysts say. But it's unclear how that will affect the military's readiness to fight. It's unclear how perishable some skills are, and Congress could appropriate emergency funds quickly if hostilities break out.
The Pentagon estimates that sequestration would require $46 billion be slashed from its budget before the end of its budget year on Sept. 30. It is examining a variety of cost-saving measures, including 22 days of unpaid time off for its 800,000 civilian employees. It would also reduce training time for all troops not going to Afghanistan and South Korea. The Navy has already said it will not send the USS Harry S Truman strike group to the Persian Gulf and will cease operations in and around South America.
Jobs and economy
Statement: "U.S. businesses have added 6 million jobs, car sales are the highest in five years, and U.S. oil dependence is the lowest in 20 years."
Context: The United.States had 106.9 million private-sector jobs when the economy bottomed out in early 2010, and reached 113.0 million jobs in January 2013. U.S. private employers had 111 million workers when Obama took office. U.S. auto sales hit an annual rate of 15.48 million in November before slipping to 15.32 million in December. The last time they were that high was February 2008. The 4.2 billion barrels of crude oil and petroleum products imported from all nations last year is the lowest since 2000. The 1.7 billion barrels imported from OPEC is the lowest since 1997. The difference between those figures reflect a greater share of U.S. oil imports that come from Canada, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Rising U.S. energy independence has little to do with policy, according to a book-length report by Citigroup last year, among many other sources. Instead, it is due to the greater application of new technologies to extract more oil and gas from shale rock using technologies such as hydraulic fracking.
Statement: "Right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. … In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts."
Context: Any kind of overhaul of the nation's immigration system has been stuck in the mud since 2007, when President George W. Bush failed to get a bipartisan bill through the Senate. Though it was torpedoed mostly by 37 Senate Republicans who thought the bill was left the borders too soft, 15 Democrats also voted to scuttle the plan under pressure from labor groups opposed to a "guest worker" provision.
Obama has given no more than a passing mention to immigration in previous addresses to Congress. He didn't even mention it in 2009, and gave the issue no more than a paragraph or so in 2010, 2011 and 2012. This year, it warranted five paragraphs.
What changed? The 2012 election. Republicans have warmed up to moving an immigration bill after exit polls showed Obama winning 71% of the Hispanic vote. And Obama tried to allay GOP concerns about "amnesty" by promising that a pathway to citizenship must include a "background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally."
Statement: "Earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks. "
Context: Obama's executive order is an attempt to do something about the growing threat from cyber attacks. The order expands the government program that provides cyber threat information to industries, such as banking, energy, telecommunications and other "critical infrastructure."
The order "puts mechanisms in place to share information but does not make it mandatory," said Stephanie Sanok, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lawmakers said legislation is required for a more comprehensive approach. The "biggest barriers to bolster our cyber defenses can be fixed only with legislation," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and ranking member Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said in a statement. Previous legislative efforts have failed because of concerns they did not include enough privacy protection for individuals. Everyone agrees the threat -- from criminals, terrorists, hackers and hostile countries -- is growing. "It is touching everywhere from media to think tanks to individual accounts and this threat is growing," Sanok said.
Statement: "It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the Second Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun."
Context: The last time a president even mentioned guns in a State of the Union Address was in 2000, when President Bill Clinton called on Congress to pass "commonsense gun safety legislation." Then, as now, Clinton was prodded by a tragic mass shooting -- the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. And Clinton, like Obama, called for background checks at gun shows and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
But Clinton went further, asking for child safety locks on all new handguns and mandatory state licensing for handgun owners. Much of his gun control agenda passed the Senate. But it failed in the House, and no major gun bill has passed since.
Obama is correct that polls show a majority of Americans favor background checks. A CBS News poll released Tuesday showed that even 90% of gun owners favor closing the so-called "gun-show loophole." But while narrow majorities of Americans also favor an assault weapons ban and limiting the size of magazines, majorities of gun owners oppose those key parts of Obama's gun control plan.
Statement: "Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits.
"That idea is even worse. Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations."
Context: After previously stating that he would consider lowering the Medicare eligibility age, Obama has backed off that proposal. As more Baby Boomers hit retirement and Medicare age, those costs are, indeed, rising. But the 2010 health care law was meant to address some of those increases by providing better, coordinated care to cut duplicate tests and keep people out of the hospital, as well as by helping people have healthier lifestyles.
This comes after a Republican proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to offer seniors a set amount of money they could use toward private insurance essentially failed during his vice presidential campaign. It also follows Republican attempts to keep the cuts the law offers, while gutting the rest of the law.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was no longer open to raising the Medicare eligibility age, an idea that had been attacked by groups that feared doing so would raise premiums in all categories. By deleting the youngest, healthiest seniors from the Medicare pool, premiums would go up for the older and sicker seniors. In contrast, those younger, healthier seniors would be older and sicker than most Americans in the private insurance pool, so those premiums would also go up. But conservatives have argued that cutting those seniors from Medicare would lower the deficit.
Statement: "The $9 an hour proposed minimum wage would bring the inflation-adjusted minimum back to where it was in 1981. About 15 million workers would get a raise under proposals to raise the minimum wage and index it for inflation. And the combination of a full-time, minimum wage job and the earned income tax credit is not sufficient now to lift a family of four above the poverty line."
Context: The minimum wage was $3.35 an hour in 1981. Some online inflation calculators contend that this works out to exactly $9 an hour now, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says It's about $8.46 in 2012 dollars. By 2015, when the increase would be phased in, that would be $9 an hour or a few cents more, depending on the inflation assumption for 2013-2015. According to the BLS, in 2011, 1.7 million American workers earned exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. About 2.2 million had wages below the minimum.
Together, these 3.8 million workers with wages at or below the federal minimum made up 5.2% of all hourly paid workers. At 40 hours per week and 52 weeks per year, the minimum wage works out to $15,080 a year. The earned income tax credit for a family of four with that income is $5,230, according to 2012 IRS instructions. The federal poverty line for this year is $23,550, according to Families USA, a health care advocacy group.
Statement: "We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. 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."
Context: Obama's call to fix a broken election system started with an off-the-cuff remark in his re-election victory speech — "By the way, we have to fix that" — and escalated with a reference to Jeffersonian ideals in his inaugural address: "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."
With his State of the Union Address, he didn't provide much more detail about how he would fix long lines at polls. Instead, he said he would name a non-partisan commission — led by top lawyers for the campaigns of Obama and Republican Mitt Romney — "to improve the voting experience in America."
Health care savings
Statement: "On Medicare, I'm 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. Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs."
Context: Much of the Affordable Care Act -- the 2010 health care law -- has yet to be implemented, so it's hard to know how much of the expected savings will actually happen. However, the administration has already announced record-breaking Medicare fraud and abuse recoveries, bringing in almost $8 billion over the last three years. It has also brought in savings on prescription drugs but requiring discounts from drug manufacturers. The law is built on expected savings through coordinated care, quality incentives for providers and prevention programs, such as annual exams with no out-of-pocket expenses. Health care spending has slowed since 2011, but that may be more because of a slow economy than due to the law.
Statement: "In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.
Context: The lack of a more muscular response to the civil war in Syria -- arming rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar Assad -- highlights the failure of Obama's policy in the Middle East, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has charged. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told McCain that they supported a CIA plan to arm the rebels. Dempsey told USA TODAY this week that the plans were "conceptual" and hinged on a better understanding of what's happening in Syria than the United States has now. Rebels are receiving non-lethal aid. An estimated 60,000 civilians have died in the fighting there.
Statement: "Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again. But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That's holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it."
Context: Obama's proposal to fix it is the same as he proposed in 2012: A program that would allow homeowners to refinance if they're current on their payments and have decent credit. Obama says his proposal would help homeowners save an average of $3,000 a year on mortgage payments.
So why hasn't Congress passed it? The cost is estimated to be $5 billion to $10 billion, and Obama has proposed a tax on banks to pay for it — a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled House.
Statement: "Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let's generate even more."
Context: The actual figure is 42%, up from the 35% average over the last five years. Wind power still provides less than 3% of total U.S. electricity, in part because of technical limitations in transmitting electricity efficiently over long distances.
Medications and seniors
Statement: "The reforms I'm proposing go even further. We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital – they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep – but we must keep the promises we've already made."
Context: There are several subsidies available to make sure pharmaceutical companies can continue to develop medications, such as those that come into play when brand-name drugs are about to lose their patents, meaning the companies will lose out to generic medications, or those to ensure research continues on antibiotics. But pharmaceutical profits continue to rise: According to company rankings at Forbes.com, top pharmaceutical company Pfizer was up 21% in profits in 2012 from 2010. Even after a series of lawsuits cut Johnson & Johnson's profits by 28%, they remained second on the list of profitable companies.
Wealthier seniors have already been asked to participate in higher-premium Medicare programs, and the health care law already attempts to end duplicate tests and to cut down hospital time.