President Barack Obama laid out an ambitious agenda last night. Here are some highlights of our experts’ analysis of his claims, his plans, and his promises.

Responding to Newtown

All Americans, no matter what our backgrounds or political perspectives, abhor the death of innocent human beings. We were shocked by the killings in Newtown and other recent mass shootings, and grieve with those who joined the First Lady at the State of the Union.

As we try to make society safer and stronger, constitutional and complex cultural factors must be taken into consideration. As we explain in a recent Heritage paper, policymakers should avoid a rush to judgment on prescriptions that violate first principles, ignore the real root of these complex problems, or disregard careful social science research. The most important solutions lie at the state and local levels, in the community and within the family.

The Second Amendment is an important safeguard of Americans’ security. Gun laws must be constitutional and should reflect the research on their effectiveness in preserving law and order. As to the President’s emphasis on background checks: The only way to enforce universal background checks for private sales is if law enforcement authorities know what firearms are held by private citizens.  And the only way to know what firearms are held by private citizens is through the creation of a national firearms registry. Federal law currently prohibits authorities from using data in the background check system to create a national firearms registry, although there are avid gun control proponents who would like to change that—a real threat to the Second Amendment rights of legitimate gun owners.

– John Malcolm, senior legal fellow, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Jennifer Marshall, director, Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

The “Voting Experience” in America

President Obama talked about voting rights, claiming we are “betraying our ideals” when any American has to “wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot.” He announced a “nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” His view of “nonpartisan” is putting two attorneys, one from his campaign and another from Governor Romney’s campaign, in charge of the effort. While there may have been some Americans who waited for long periods to vote in 2012, the vast majority did not. A recent study of the 2012 election reported that the average wait time nationally was only 14 minutes.

We already had such an election reform commission back in 2005, the Baker-Carter Commission, whose findings were largely ignored. It is especially hard to have confidence in any commission Obama might appoint, given that his attorney general has tried to stop state election reform efforts like voter ID intended to improve the security and integrity of the election process. Moreover, Obama’s commission may just be a stalking horse to implement liberals’ latest partisan fantasies of automatic and election day voter registration, so-called reforms that will stifle real improvements and endanger the integrity of our elections.

– Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

“Comprehensive” Immigration Reform

Well, we certainly saw this coming. Another call for comprehensive immigration reform. We learned in his inaugural that our journey is not complete until “we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.” Who can disagree with that? The time has come, he said. And we all know what needs to be done. Really?

We have long advocated and done extensive research on various policies that will reform immigration, but comprehensive reform is not the way to proceed: It won’t fix the root problems and will likely make matters worse. It doesn’t create opportunity, but restricts it. The better way to proceed is to go about solving problems, starting where there is broad agreement, and working toward a fundamental restructuring of our immigration system to emphasize work, opportunity, and assimilation under the rule of law. There is no reason to assume—and many reasons to doubt—that a “comprehensive approach” is the only reasonable and only fair way to proceed to reform.

– Matthew Spalding, PhD, vice president, American Studies and director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

The Renewed Threat of Terrorism

The President’s statement that this nation “salutes those who defend it around the world” unfortunately rings hollow – when the Administration’s treatment of the Benghazi terrorist attack is considered. Anyone with a sense of irony would not have put such a line in the speech. And, even though the Administration has thumped its chest over the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are growing in North Africa in places like Libya and Mali. Only a week ago, the U.S. embassy in Turkey was the target of a terrorist attack. And we are still sorting through the messy aftermath of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which Obama has tried to move beyond.

Until this White House is willing to account for its actions and false storylines peddled following the Benghazi attack, its credibility on the issue of terrorism will continue to be severely compromised. With a President who failed miserably to show responsibility for Americans under attack, this country will continue to face grave dangers ahead.

– Helle C. Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies

National Education Standards: Greater Federal Control of the Classroom

“We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards.”

What the President was talking about was Common Core national education standards. Since coming to Washington, the Obama Administration has been using federal dollars to “convince” states to agree to adopting national education standards. Not only is this a massive federal overreach into the nation’s classrooms, but there are various other reasons states should be concerned about these federally backed standards.  The standards are costly. Researchers project that it could amount to a total of $16 billion for states to implement the standards. Additionally, experts have expressed concern about the mediocre quality of the standards. Some states, like Massachusetts, have even been forced to “dumb down” their curriculum.

Instead of a federal takeover of curriculum, states need greater flexibility to implement the reforms they decide are best. Rather than serving the needs of Washington, schools should have the freedom to help children succeed.

Rachel Sheffield, research associate, DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society


Perhaps the most ridiculous foreign policy statement of the evening was when President Obama said: “And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” This is naivete on a dangerous level. A war doesn’t simply end just because you say it has. It is not just up to President Obama to decide when the war in Afghanistan ends. The Taliban has a say; the Pakistanis have a say; the Afghans have a say; and al-Qaeda has a say. If Afghanistan is about national security, like we have been told and like most believe, then the only responsible act is to ensure that U.S. objectives are met before any hasty troop reductions. After all, the whole point of a war is to achieve your objectives—not to leave it as soon as possible.

Any decisions taken to reduce troops numbers should be based on improved conditions on the ground and on military advice—not on a desire to end a war that, in some capacity, and regardless of what Obama thinks, will still have to be fought after 2015.

– Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher Fellow, The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Foreign Policy in Retreat

What was striking about Obama’s remarks was how strongly his foreign policy vision contrasted with his domestic policy prescriptions. At home, it seems that very little does not qualify as an “investment”: by his way of thinking, the government exists to start programs, spend money, tax the rich, and do things.

But abroad, the government exists mostly to stop doing things. One of the President’s biggest lines was the promise of bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and ending the war, under the mistaken belief that al-Qaeda has been defeated. He reiterated his stale promise to rely on diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, an approach that has been tested to exhaustion by successive administrations and is nothing more than a program of kicking the can down the road. His approach to nuclear weapons was, predictably, to argue for doing less, and—in the face of the North Korean and Iranian evidence—to imply that cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile will induce others to behave better. And in the President’s telling, cyber attacks on the U.S. appear to stem from nowhere in particular; naming China, among others, might not be tactful, but it would have had the virtue of pointing out that this is not an abstract threat.

The overwhelming impression left by the address was of a foreign policy in recessional, and one that relies on rhetoric and the promise of future negotiations to create the impression of action and achievement.

– Ted Bromund, PhD, senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations, The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Infrastructure “Investments” Don’t Deliver On Promises

President Obama is right to point out that the country’s infrastructure—its ports and waterways, roads, and bridges, are aging and in many cases “badly in need of repair.” Extensive, healthy infrastructure is crucial for commerce and to keep the country economically competitive. His “Fix-It-First” program solution, however, doubles down on failed policies of the past—federal stimulus with no way to pay for it.

He made another bold push for infrastructure investments (read: spending) to achieve his vision of a “smarter government.” Bold—in the irresponsible sense—because such federal stimulus failed to jumpstart the economy following the 2009 stimulus package, and it will fail in future iterations.

The private sector will not join in backing financially unviable projects, a reality from which the government could take a cue. Amazingly, the President insists on revisiting this financing mechanism with his new “Partnership to Rebuild America” initiative.

– Emily Goff, research associate, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

State of the…Climate?

Swept into office four years ago based, in part, on promises to slow sea-level rise, President Obama initiated a radical climate agenda. It seems we are seeing a rerun in 2013. It is worth asking what is different four years after his first State of the Union Address?

There have been four more years of no global warming. In 2010, there had been no significant world temperature increase for over a decade. The streak is now 16 years long. We have four years of costly lessons on the waste and inefficiency of green-energy subsidies.

The scientific basis for catastrophic climate change gets weaker and weaker. The economic argument for green subsidies has already collapsed. It is time for the administration to quit using both arguments to justify a regulatory and fiscal power grab.

David W. Kreutzer, PhD, research fellow in energy economics and climate change, Center for Data Analysis

“Balance” in Obamaspeak

Tonight’s State of the Union address reflected President Obama’s liberal ideology: Everything starts with government. His proposals for new “investments” in manufacturing, infrastructure, and so on rest on the false belief that only government can figure out how to make the economy grow. Hence his “Fix-it-First” program, and his Partnership to Rebuild America. If government doesn’t do it, it won’t happen.

When he claims his new spending proposals won’t add to the deficit, it proves he just doesn’t get it. The deficit is a symptom of excess spending; it’s spending that has to be controlled.

With the government drowning in red ink, Obama offers a life preserver made of lead: more spending. He has already pocketed a $618 billion tax increase in the fiscal cliff deal (in addition to $1 trillion in new Obamacare taxes). He needs to accept that true “balance” has two sides—and start cutting spending.

Patrick Louis Knudsen, Grover M. Hermann Senior Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Obama Blames Conservatives for Whatever Happens with Sequestration

The President has executed the greatest act of political jujitsu in the modern age. His people convinced congressional leaders to put sequestration into the Budget Control Act, and then denied it when it looked unpopular.

Now, the President is smugly looking at conservatives and saying, “If only you guys were not so ideological, you’d let me raise taxes (again), and save Defense!” It does not seem to matter that only conservatives have offered solutions; only conservatives see the massive spending on entitlements as the problem (as do all reputable economists); and suddenly, the Joint Chiefs have finally started admitting what a disaster sequestration will be for our national readiness.

The kicker is that the President will get to “blame” conservatives for whatever happens. The sad truth is the ones who will “pay” for this are the young troops who get sent to the next conflict situation ill-prepared.

– Steve Bucci, director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies

America’s Hurting Workers

The President said that “for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.” If spending and debt continue growing on their current trajectory, wages and salaries will be depressed because of the highest U.S. debt in a decade.

Rising government spending and huge deficits are threatening to ring in a period of depressed growth and fewer opportunities for Americans. Without sequester-level spending cuts, publicly held debt is projected to reach almost 90 percent of GDP in 10 years. Debt levels this high are associated with significantly slower growth for a prolonged period of time.

The President and Congress should balance the budget in 10 years by making necessary and prudent reforms to entitlement programs and cutting inappropriate, and often times wasteful, federal spending.

– Romina Boccia, research coordinator, Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

For more analysis, including the President’s education initiatives for preschool and higher ed, visit the full State of the Union roundup.

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Quick Hits:

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