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Six things we learned from the State of the Union

Larry Downing / Reuters

In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama emphasized healthcare, economic fairness and new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy with bipartisan cooperation.

President Barack Obama may have made sweeping statements about his unfinished agenda on Tuesday night, but, when it came to specifics, the president used a scalpel rather than an axe when delivering his State of the Union message. 

The president put forward a series of relatively modest policy proposals that offered plenty for Democrats, but suggested little in the way of legacy-making ambitions. And he pulled some punches when it came to big ticket items like immigration and voting rights. 

Here are six takeaways from the big night: 

A panel of NBC News political experts weigh in on President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

Carrots and sticks : It’s no secret that the president is frustrated with Republicans in Congress, whose resistance has foiled his plans for everything from immigration reform to the extension of long-term unemployment insurance. That exasperation was more than apparent in some parts of Obama’s speech, but he also urged cooperation and an optimistic outlook for solving the gridlock. Opponents likely heard his tone as patronizing and pained; fans probably heard patience and maturity. He sternly chided Republicans for the government shutdown and poked fun at Obamacare repeal efforts, but he also gave congressional Republicans wide berth on the issue of immigration and lauded conservative for backing voting rights reforms.  He devoted time to issues like patent reform and new trade proposals, things that many Republicans might be willing to play ball on. 

Looking to 2014 : As his party prepares for tough midterm elections, Obama offered plenty of items -- outside of Obamacare -- that Democrats can run on in 2014. He promoted access to education and improvements to international trade (without the controversial specifics that some in his party dislike). With lines like “Give America a raise” and “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” he created instant, stump-ready sound bites to plug a minimum wage hike and wage fairness for women. And he mentioned “opportunity” 12 times, underscoring Democrats’ message of economic fairness.  Aside from ongoing discomfort over proposed Iran sanctions that Obama says he will veto, there wasn’t much in this speech for Democrats to dislike. 

But, mostly small ball : While Obama did make sweeping statements about issues like climate change and gun violence -- hardly fertile areas for bipartisan compromise in an election year -- most of Obama’s “concrete, practical proposals” to help the economy were small in scope. Projects to improve access to broadband, create retirement savings bonds and reform federal training programs aren’t exactly sexy, even if they could positively impact many Americans’ lives. He repeated earlier declarations that he will use executive actions to bypass Congress -- including on guns, saying “America does not stand still -- and neither will I.”  But  the most specific executive proposals he laid out just weren’t the stuff of which headlines are made. 

Advertising, not apologizing, on Obamacare: After the disastrous launch of the HealthCare.Gov site last year, Obama held a lengthy and almost agonized press conference to apologize for the rollout. But that conciliatory tone was gone Tuesday night, with the president instead taking the opportunity of the big television audience to push Americans -- particularly young people -- to sign up for Obamacare. “Moms, get on your kids to sign up.  Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application,” he said. “It will give her some peace of mind – plus, she’ll appreciate hearing from you.”  He didn’t exactly treat GOP opponents of Obamacare with kid gloves either, urging them against more votes to outright repeal his signature domestic achievement. “The first forty were plenty. We got it.  We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” he said. 

President Barack Obama pushes Congress to pass immigration reform in 2014 while giving his State of the Union address.

A gentle approach on immigration : As House Republicans prepare to consider a set of “principles” on the issue this week, Obama devoted only a paragraph of his 20-page speech to the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, his top second-term domestic agenda item. The brief mention -- devoid of any specifics about his priorities on how to treat undocumented immigrants inside the country’s borders -- may disappoint some pro-immigration activists. But Obama was also careful not to complicate the efforts of House GOP leaders to find a solution -- if there is one -- that can appease most Republicans and still make it to the president’s desk. 

A transcendent moment for an American hero : The most memorable moment of the State of the Union, by far, was Obama’s callout to Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, a wounded veteran who was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. The lengthy and emotional standing ovation from every person in the chamber provided one powerful data point to back up Obama’s message that unity is still sometimes possible. But it also made the annual pomp and circumstance around what was a very modest State of the Union feel awfully small.