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State of the Union: The Message for Feds

Mandel Ngan/Associated Press

10:10 p.m. It's a wrap. "A brighter future is ours to write," Obama says.

9:58 p.m. Obama is now speaking about the National Security Agency and other federal offices that have come under fire for their surveillance of American and foreign citizens: “As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse. And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”

9:53 p.m. No threat poses a greater challenge than climate challenge, Obama says. He gives a shoutout to federal scientists: “ I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

9:52 p.m. Obama mentions the fight to eradicate Ebola, a fight which included thousands of federal civil servants and military personnel: “In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola -- saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. I couldn’t be prouder of them, and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts.”

9:51 p.m. Obama urged Congress to tackle cybersecurity legislation to strengthen cyber defenses. Several federal agencies were hacked in recent months, putting many federal employees’ information at risk. The recent hacks of Sony and U.S. Central Command’s official Twitter account have elevated cybersecurity issues even further. Check out our sister site NextGov for comprehensive reporting on those breaches, as well the new cyber initiatives Obama is putting forward.

9:44 p.m. As Obama transitions to the foreign policy portion of his speech, he commends the work of both military and civilians abroad: “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now -- and around the globe, it is making a difference.”

9:40 p.m. And now a special mention for another federal agency, NASA, as well as one of its employees: “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space.

9:38 p.m. Obama calls for investment in medical research and announces a new initiative: “I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine — one that delivers the right treatment at the right time. Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes — and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.”

9:34 p.m. Obama is now addressing the need to take care of returning veterans, as well as the important role of the Veterans Affairs Department. He notes recent progress: “We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs.”

9:30 p.m. Obama notes there are limits to what government should do: These ideas won’t make everybody rich, or relieve every hardship. That’s not the job of government.

9:27 p.m. Here’s the big ticket item for federal employees in Obama’s speech tonight, although Obama did not specifically mention his plan for feds: “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.”

In a move Obama previewed prior to tonight’s speech, the White House has directed all agencies to advance federal employees up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or ill family members. Obama is also calling for congressional legislation to give feds six weeks of administrative leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. Taken together, the two initiatives would provide feds with 12 paid weeks off to care for new children. The move is part of a larger agenda to strengthen the middle class by giving families more work-life flexibility.

9:23 p.m. As we noted earlier, Obama continues to say federal government needs a larger role: “But here’s the thing -- those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm. Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.”

9:17 p.m. Obama begins to make his case for government, as he has been wont to do in these speeches: “We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition.” And then he gives his first nod to a specific federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: “Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices.”

Obama still remembers the government shutdown in 2013: “We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns.” He says he will veto any bill that tries to re-wage old fights.

9:13 p.m. As is typical, the president carves out a special shout out to active-duty military -- this time after noting the drawdown in both Iraq and Afghanistan: “We salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service.”

9:12 p.m. As expected, Obama comes out of the gate trumpeting the economic progress in the last few years: “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.” While the overall U.S. economy has added jobs consistently over the several years, federal agencies cannot say the same. The government cut 19,000 federal positions in 2014, after shedding nearly 80,000 the year before.

9:06 p.m. Here we go. As the president makes his way to the podium, here's the money quote for feds, according to prepared remarks: "We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making."

8:32 p.m. The First Lady has at least one fed in her box tonight: Kathy Pham, a computer scientist with the low profile U.S. Digital Service, which was established several months ago to help agencies work the bugs out of some of government’s most notable technology programs. According to the White House, Pham’s mother received critical cancer care thanks to the Affordable Care Act. No word on whether Pham helped her mother navigate the troubled Healthcare.gov website to sign up for coverage.  

8:17 p.m. Each year, the president chooses one member of his cabinet to be the “designated survivor” in the event that some crisis at the Capitol Building wipes out everyone at the State of the Union address. This year’s lucky pick? Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who will be holed up in an undisclosed location, according to our sister site National Journal. The former and current Energy Department secretaries, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, respectively, had the honor the last two years. You can see every designated survivor since 1984 here.

4:45 p.m. We’ll be discussing President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight and the takeaways for federal employees. We expect to hear a lot about how Obama plans to help the middle class and perhaps more about the administration’s legislative proposal for paid family leave for feds. Another topic we anticipate hearing more about is cybersecurity. Check back with us this evening and join the conversation in the comments below.

Eric Katz writes about federal agency operations and management. His deep coverage of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Postal Service has earned him frequent guest spots on national radio and television news programs. Eric joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 and previously worked for The Financial Times. He is a graduate of The George Washington University.

Katherine is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for GovExec.com. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.

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