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State Of The Union And NPR's Live Reality Check

President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address before members of Congress.
Mark Wilson Getty Images
President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address before members of Congress.

President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, followed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's Republican address. Below the video from PBS NewsHour, NPR reporters provided live analysis of the president's remarks.

Reality Check

NPR reporters provided context on a variety of issues that President Obama spoke about in his State of the Union address.


Obama: "Leadership depends on the power of our example. That is why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo: It's expensive, it's unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies."

Obama's vow represents a return to his flagship campaign promise from his first election in 2008 and previews what could be a major standoff this year with Republicans in Congress. The president has asked the Defense Department for a plan he can send to Capitol Hill to give lawmakers a chance to vote to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and relocate its detainees to the U.S. If that doesn't happen, however, Obama hasn't ruled out testing his own executive authority and taking some kind of action on his own.

Congress has passed a bill for several years that forbids relocating Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., or bars the Pentagon from spending money to study alternative detention sites. Even so, the Defense Department has been working on alternatives. It sent survey teams to prisons in South Carolina, Kansas and Colorado to assess how they might work, but its recommendations remain under wraps. The Wall Street Journal reported the White House sent the Pentagon's proposal back across the Potomac River because it might have been too expensive.

One of Obama's arguments to Congress is that the number of guards required, the remote location in Cuba and other arrangements mean Guantanamo is just too expensive to maintain. So his administration has been transferring as many prisoners as it can to other nations to whittle down the remaining population and strengthen that cost argument. There are more than 100 prisoners still at Guantanamo, of whom about 50 have a chance of getting out. The others are considered too dangerous and would remain in U.S. custody under the laws of war. They were detained in the early portion of President George W. Bush's war on al-Qaida focused in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, however, the administration continues to hold detainees it has decided not to prosecute. NPR's David Welna profiled one such prisoner, Mohamedou Slahi, who wrote a memoir about his ordeal. But because of ongoing security restrictions, Slahi has never been permitted to receive a copy of his own book. -- Phil Ewing, national security editor


Obama: "Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years."

Obama touted a manufacturing surge of 900,000 new jobs in his State of the Union speech. He's right — according to the Labor Department there were an estimated 12.3 million manufacturing jobs in December 2015, compared with just under 11.5 million during a recent trough, in 2010 (a total gain of 878,000 jobs).

That's a resurgence; but taking a longer view, it's a small bump. Manufacturing employment has fallen off dramatically since the industry was at peak employment. There are 7 million fewer manufacturing jobs in the U.S. than when employment in the industry was at its peak in the early 1980s. It's not that output shrank along with employment. As NPR's Jacob Goldstein summed up in 2012, "technology and globalization" helped to slash jobs. Technological advances meant factories could crank out more goods with fewer people. In addition, an interconnected world meant that some manufacturing jobs migrated overseas. While Obama (and workers with the 878,000 new jobs) may cheer the new-job creation, whatever manufacturing renaissance is underway will never quite reach the heights of the 1970s and '80s.

Obama is also pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge trade deal that has some in the manufacturing industry worried. The administration says the TPP will boost manufacturing by preventing trade barriers and cutting tariffs, while others fear it will hurt some of America's manufacturing workers. Still, the National Association of Manufacturing recently endorsed the deal, albeit "after careful analysis," as U.S. News reports. — Danielle Kurtzleben, politics reporter


Obama: "Let me start with the economy, and a basic fact: The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. We're in the middle of the longest streak of private sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the '90s; an unemployment rate cut in half."

The U.S. economy is the largest in the world. China's economy is growing faster, albeit not as fast as it was in years past. And the U.S. economy is relatively stable compared with much of Europe, for example. American employers have been adding jobs for 70 consecutive months, the longest expansion on record. And the job gains in the past two years were the largest since 1998-2000. Unemployment, which peaked at 10 percent during the downturn, is now 5 percent. — Scott Horsley, White House correspondent

Obama: "Anyone claiming that America's economy is in decline is peddling fiction."

By many objective measures, the U.S. economy is in much stronger shape today than when President Obama took office. But there are blemishes on that record. Wage growth is still sluggish, at 2.5 percent, although wages outpaced inflation last year. Labor force participation is somewhat depressed, at 62.6 percent, although some of that results from the retirement of the baby boomers. Overall economic growth is lackluster. And income inequality has widened.

The president acknowledged some of these problems, saying, "What is true — and the reason that a lot of Americans feel anxious — is that the economy has been changing in profound ways, changes that started long before the Great Recession hit and haven't let up." He argued that safety-net measures like the Affordable Care Act help to counteract some of the resulting uncertainty. — Scott Horsley, White House correspondent

Affordable Care Act:

Obama: "That's what the Affordable Care Act is all about. It's about filling the gaps in employer-based care so that when we lose a job, or go back to school, or start that new business, we'll still have coverage. Nearly 18 million have gained coverage so far. Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law."

The combination of subsidized private insurance through government exchanges and Medicaid has expanded coverage to millions of people who didn't have it before and pushed the nation's uninsured rate below 10 percent for the first time ever. Health care inflation did slow during the law's early years, although that might have been thanks in part to the recession. And health care costs began climbing more rapidly in 2014, outpacing inflation in other sectors of the economy. — Scott Horsley, White House correspondent


Obama: "And we've done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters."

In dollar terms, the deficit peaked at $1.4 trillion in 2009. In 2016, it's expected to fall to $474 billion, a drop of about two-thirds. As a percentage of the overall economy, though, the deficit has dropped from 9.8 percent to 2.5 percent, a drop of roughly three-quarters. — Scott Horsley, White House correspondent

Student debt:

Obama: "And we have to make college affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red. We've already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrower's income."

Obama touted the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program, instituted in 2012. Initially, the PAYE program was only available to certain graduates (those who took out loans after 2007, for example) — other people could use other programs like income-based repayment (passed under George W. Bush in 2007), which caps payments at 15 percent of income. But last month, the administration expanded pay as you earn to anyone with a federal direct loan, with its REPAYE program. It also, like other income-tied options, forgives loans eventually — for REPAYE, it's after 20 years for undergraduate borrowers and 25 YEARS for graduate borrowers.

These repayment plans have relieved borrowers as student debt levels spiral upwards (reaching $1.2 trillion in September 2015). The idea of tying repayment to income has both Republican and Democratic supporters. But the plans have their flaws. They may not currently be reaching the borrowers that really need them, as the Brookings institution's Susan Dynarski wrote last year pointing out that 1 in 5 people with direct loans used the programs, while there are likely more who could use the help (like people with the smallest debt, who tend to have the highest-default rates). Dynarski has also pointed out that the program may not serve low-income borrowers well, as they also may have unsteady incomes.

In addition, there are worries about the price tag that comes alongside cutting student loan payments for more and more borrowers. For example, the student loan program took in $22 billion less than anticipated in 2014, as Politico's Michael Grunwald reported, largely due to the administration expanding the program.

Of course, students have high debt because college is expensive. While the 2016 candidates debate the big question of helping people pay for college, Obama once again pushed his proposal of giving people two free years of community college. If he wants to get that done, he has only a year to persuade the Republican Congress. — Danielle Kurtzleben, politics reporter

Russia and Ukraine:

Obama: "Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria — states they see slipping away from their orbit."

This had Russia watchers scratching their heads and wondering if Obama's speechwriters simply made a mistake. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer tweets, "Odd line. More like Moscow pouring resources in to destabilize Ukraine." Pifer, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, says Obama got it right in another point in the speech, when he said, "When we help Ukraine defend its democracy ... that strengthens the international order we depend upon." — Michele Keleman, State Department correspondent

Iran's nuclear deal:

Obama: "As we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war."

President Obama is hailing his nuclear deal with Iran as a foreign policy win. As he spoke, Iran was also holding the crews of two U.S. Navy vessels that were "snooping," in the words of Iran's official agency. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, and was assured that the sailors — nine men and one woman — would be released soon. President Obama is making no mention of this. He also dashed the hopes of some in the audience, who hoped he would talk about the Americans languishing in Iranian prisons, even as the U.S. and its partners prepare to lift sanctions under the Iran nuclear deal.

Ali Rezaian, who was a guest of Rep. Jared Huffman, says his brother, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, should be covering the State of the Union address. "Instead, he remains unlawfully jailed in Iran's infamous Evin prison, where he has now been held for 541 days — even though he committed no crime," Ali Rezaian said in a statement.

The sister and brother-in-law of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati were guests of Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee and were hoping to hear Obama talk about their family member's case. Hekmati was jailed in 2011, when he went to Iran to visit his grandmother. -- Michele Kelemen, State Department correspondent

Criminal justice reform:

Obama: "So I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse. We just might surprise the cynics again."

When it comes to overhauling the justice system, the message from longtime advocates and legislative aides is actually "not so fast." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to schedule a vote by the full Senate on a bipartisan bill that would reduce prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders, and time is short on the congressional calendar this year.

In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told an audience in Washington Tuesday that no justice reform legislation would move there without imposing new burdens of proof on prosecutors with respect to criminal intent. Justice Department leaders have protested that idea as a get-out-of-prison-free card for many corporate and environmental offenders, and the Fraternal Order of Police says it's a "poison pill" that could kill the entire effort.

Interest remains high among many lawmakers in Washington and in statehouses around the nation to rethink the 1980s-era tough-on-crime punishments for drug offenders. So even if nothing happens in Congress before the presidential election, and if crime remains near record lows, the movement could continue after President Obama leaves office. — Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent


Obama: "For more than a year, America has led a coalition of more than 60 countries to cut off ISIL's financing, disrupt their plots, stop the flow of terrorist fighters, and stamp out their vicious ideology. With nearly 10,000 airstrikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons. We are training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria."

Obama's description of the war against the Islamic State appears guaranteed to disappoint the hawks who have criticized his approach to the conflict. His own former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Foreign Policy magazine that Obama's signals about attacking Syrian President Bashar Assad — then his abrupt decision not to — hurt American credibility around the world.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had called on Obama to use his speech to lay out a more comprehensive strategy for the conflict against ISIL — an invitation Obama did not accept. Instead, the president restated his warnings about reckless military interventions as "a recipe for quagmire" and said his restraint in Syria and Iraq represented "a smarter approach."

The president also hinted at strategies against ISIS that have come up on the presidential campaign trail. "But as we focus on destroying ISIL," he said, "over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands."

Administration officials acknowledge, however, that they've struggled to make lasting progress in Syria. The Pentagon attempted to recruit and train local fighters to take on the Islamic State, but that program fell on its face. American special operations troops and covert agents are now helping with the fight against ISIL and Assad, but no ground force in Syria today is powerful enough to force a decisive victory. Syria is a dilemma that Obama fully expects to hand to his successor. -- Phil Ewing, national security editor

Released prisoners starting over:

Obama: "I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over — and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe."

President Obama already has taken executive action that makes it easier for applicants for federal government jobs to get in the door if they have criminal records, by directing hiring officers to ask about criminal histories later in the process. That idea, commonly known as "banning the box," does not currently extend to the federal contractor population. Civil rights groups are pushing the White House to take that extra step this year.

Another top priority for advocates, including the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is making sure the president and his Justice Department ensure that the nation's 18,000-odd police and law enforcement agencies report data about the number of people killed and injured by police every year. That process is voluntary now, but the advocates want the Obama administration to make that data-sharing a requirement for law enforcement entities that receive federal grant money. — Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent


Obama: "Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo."

President Obama says there's one way that Congress can help consolidate U.S. leadership and credibility in Latin America: Lift the embargo. In the past year, Obama has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopened the U.S. Embassy. He has also eased travel and trade restrictions in ways that he says will help improve the lives of the Cuban people.

Critics, though, point out that Cuba regularly detains dissidents and the human rights situation is deteriorating even as U.S./Cuban ties warm. Lifting the embargo will take an act of Congress, and even supporters of President Obama's new approach doubt that will happen anytime soon, given Cuba's poor human rights record. His call on Congress, though, has been well-received in Latin America, which, like most of the rest of the world, votes against the U.S. embargo each year in the U.N. General Assembly. — Michele Kelemen, State Department

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