By Henry Decker, National Memo
President Barack Obama presented an unabashedly liberal blueprint for his second term in his State of the Union address, repeatedly challenging Congress to enact policies that support a growing middle class – and the agenda that Americans voted for in November.
After declaring the state of the union “stronger,” the president introduced the key theme of his speech: that “to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth,” America needs “a rising, thriving middle class.” To that end, Obama proceeded to lay out several economic proposals that brought congressional Democrats to their feet – and left House Speaker John Boehner sitting stonefaced over the president’s left shoulder.
“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” Obama declared at one point in his speech; instead he laid out a series of progressive plans to jumpstart the economy. Obama proposed that we could “save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well off and well connected,” and called for “a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries.”
The president also suggested raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00 per hour. Although the proposed increase falls far short of the $15 per hour for which liberal entrepreneurs Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer have called, it is still a highly progressive plan – and a defiant repudiation of conservative economics.
“Working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher,” Obama explained.
While Obama acknowledged that Medicare must be reformed to reduce health care costs, he flatly rejected the notion of extreme Medicare reforms such as those proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). “Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep,” Obama said, “but we must keep the promises we’ve already made”
The president went on to call on Congress to pass the remaining items in his American Jobs Act, including creating a network of “manufacturing hubs,” investing in clean energy, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and increasing spending on research and development. Although Obama insisted that none of his proposals would add a single dime to the deficit, spending-averse Republicans are still certain to oppose most of these measures. Perhaps as a prebuttal to this inevitable debate, Obama directly challenged congressional Republicans to abandon their strategy of constant obstruction – which is currently playing out in the form of a standoff over sequestration cuts.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” Obama warned. “Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”
In another direct challenge to his Republican opponents, Obama disputed their continued refusal to act on climate change – giving the crucial issue one of its highest-profile platforms in history.
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” Obama said, “or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.” The president went on to warn that if Congress continues to ignore the conclusions of 97 percent of scientists, he will take matters into his own hands by issuing executive orders to directly confront the issue.
While much of Obama’s speech tacked to the left, the president also made several proposals that are backed by vast majorities of Americans. The president highlighted the work of red states Georgia and Oklahoma to encourage Congress to act to provide high-quality preschool for every child. He announced the formation of a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America, citing the example of Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old woman who waited in line for several hours to cast her ballot. He urged Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act to provide equal rights to women. He encouraged the bipartisan efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. And in the most memorable moment of the speech, he demanded that Congress vote on his package of gun safety measures.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” Obama said. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.” Citing the more than two dozen Americans in the chamber who had been affected by gun violence, Obama declared:
They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.
As each of these proposals drew standing ovations from both Democrats and several Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner’s impassive glare was especially conspicuous. Although congressional Republicans’ opposition to measures such as the Violence Against Women Act is well established, Boehner provided a memorable visual reminder of the clear divide between the two major parties.
Making matters worse for Republicans was Florida senator Marco Rubio’s official response to the State of the Union. The 2016 contender flopped in the face of high expectations, delivering a boilerplate response issuing stern warnings on the debt, and accusing President Obama of having an “obsession” with raising taxes. If Rubio’s address –which was little more than a reprise of Mitt Romney’s stump speech – is remembered at all, it will be for the senator’s awkward grab for a water bottle.
Love it or hate it, President Obama presented the American people with a clear legislative agenda Tuesday night. If the Republican Party ever wants to return from the political wilderness, it will eventually need to do the same.