(by David Jackson, USA Today) – It’s not just what President Obama says during Tuesday’s State of the Union speech. It’s how he says it, and how long he takes to say it.

Some observers are particularly interested in how Obama handles three notably contentious issues, even among fellow Democrats: Health care, free trade, and the prospects for new sanctions on Iran.

— Health care. Obama and his aides say the new health care law will work in the long run and be a political benefit, even with the rollout problems that have included a poorly working website and canceled policies.

Some Democrats aren’t so sure. And Republicans — seeking to hold the House and recapture the Senate — are already making health care the cornerstone of their 2014 congressional election strategy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who faces primary and general election challenges this year, said in an op-ed on Obama’s speech: “We likely won’t hear how Obamacare has caused higher premiums and deductibles, canceled policies and lowered quality of care.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney, speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week, said the law is expanding health care for more and more Americans. He disputed the GOP idea that it’s an election winner.

“If they decide to run on it … they’ve got to explain what repeal means,” Carney said.

 Free trade. Obama faces some Democratic opposition to his request for “fast track”* negotiating authority. That power would restrict Congress to up-or-down votes on deals that have already been negotiated, with no amendments allowed. [*The fast track negotiating authority for trade agreements is the authority of the President to negotiate international agreements that the Congress can approve or disapprove but cannot amend or filibuster.]

The Obama administration is also trying to close in on two free trade agreements that are also being disputed: The Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Asian and Latin American nations, and another deal with European Union nations.

Some Democrats — backed by labor unions and other major party supporters — say free trade leads to the transfer of American jobs overseas. They oppose fast track authority and the two free trade agreements currently being negotiated.

Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and George Miller of California, sent a letter to Obama recently saying at least 151 fellow Democrats oppose fast track authority: “The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past.”

— Iran. As the clock runs on a six-month temporary deal, the Obama administration, its allies and Iran are negotiating a long-term agreement in which Iran would restrict nuclear activities in exchange for reduced sanctions.

Some [or many?] members of Congress, questioning Iran’s sincerity [because] Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons, have called for new sanctions. Critics of the new talks include some Democrats.

Obama has said negotiations are the best bet to head off a nuclear-armed Iran, and ongoing talks will be undercut by new sanctions.

Iran, free trade, health care are all likely to surface during President Obama’s speech Tuesday night — for how long, and with what emphasis, no one yet knows.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from USA Today. Visit the website at usatoday .com.


NOTE to students:  Read the information under “Background” below before answering the questions. 

1.  a) What is the State of the Union address?
b)  When and where is the State of the Union given?

2.  List the three contentious issues President Obama is expected to address in his 2014 State of the Union.

3.  a) How is President Obama expected to address the problems with the Obamacare law?
b)  What do you think of White House press secretary Jay Carney’s comments on ABC’s This Week?

4.  a) What is “fast-track” authority?
b)  Who is opposed to President Obama’s free trade agreements and fast-track authority?  Why?

5.  a) How does President Obama’s view on Iran’s nuclear program differ from that of Congress (most Republicans and some Democrats)?
b)  Ask a parent if he/she agrees with President Obama’s policy and what they would like to hear him say on Iran during his SOTU.

6. a) Which of the following issues do you think are most important for President Obama to focus on in his State of the Union?  Explain your answer.  

  • the economy/jobs/unemployment
  • foreign policy (what to do about Iran, Syria, Sudan…)
  • terrorism
  • Afghanistan
  • the NSA surveillance program
  • same-sex marriage
  • legalizing marijuana for recreational use
  • the problems with ObamaCare
  • education
  • other

6. b) Ask a parent what issues he/she thinks President Obama should focus on in his State of the Union, and to explain his/her answer.

CHALLENGE — Watch the State of the Union address and answer the following questions:

1.  Tone is the attitude a speaker takes towards a subject. What was the tone of President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address?

2. What was the overall theme of the president’s speech?

3.  a) What general statement did President Obama make about the economy in his address to the nation?
b) What is your reaction to this encouraging statement?
c) Ask a parent the same question.

4. List some of the things the President promised to do to improve the economy.

5.  What new initiatives did President Obama propose in his State of the Union?

6.  Which issues did the President bypass altogether, or just mention briefly?

7.  a) Do you think the President is focusing on the correct issues? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.

8.  What issue presented by President Obama was the most important to you?  Did any aspect of the speech disappoint you?  Explain your answers.  (For the text and video of the 2014 State of the Union address, click here.)

9. a) Do you think the President is focusing on the correct issues? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.

10. Watch/read the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union at What do you think of Washington Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ response?



“The President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  US Constitution Article II, Section 3

  • The State of the Union is an annual address presented by the President to the United States Congress. The address not only reports on the condition of the nation but also allows the president to outline his legislative agenda (for which he needs the cooperation of Congress) and his national priorities.
  • By tradition, the President makes this report annually.

  • While not required to deliver a speech, every president since Woodrow Wilson has made the State of the Union report as a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress. Before that time, most presidents delivered the State of the Union as a written report.

  • Since Wilson, the State of the Union is given typically each January before a joint session of the United States Congress and is held in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol.

  • George Washington gave the first state of the union address on January 8, 1790 at the Federal Hall in New York City.

  • Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, did not continue this practice. In 1801, Jefferson detailed his priorities and sent written copies of his message to each house of Congress. Jefferson “was concerned that the practice of appearing before the representatives of the people was too similar to the British monarch’s ritual of addressing the opening of each new Parliament with a list of policy mandates, rather than ‘recommendations.’”

  • For the next 112 years, the President’s annual message was written, not spoken.

  • In the 20th Century, the oral address was revived, first with Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Like Washington, he spoke to both Houses of Congress. Ten years later, Calvin Coolidge broadcast his address on radio.

  • Franklin D Roosevelt called the speech the “State of the Union” in 1935. In 1947, Harry Truman, FDR’s vice president – who succeeded him as President, was the first to broadcast his State of the Union address on television.

  • Since 1966, the State of the Union address has been followed by a response from a member of the opposition party.


  • It is customary for the opposing party to respond to a President’s State of the Union address. Washington House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers will give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Watch Rep. McMorris’ response at
  • Liberals generally support Democratic President Obama. For a liberal perspective of President Obama’s speech, go to the liberal website
  • Conservatives generally oppose the President’s policies. For a conservative perspective of President Obama’s speech, go to the conservative website
  • For texts and/or videos of Presidential State of the Union Addresses since 1945, go to
  • Watch or read President Obama’s entire speech at
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