President Barack Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday and focused on a slew of progressive proposals he dubbed “middle class economics.” Obama also announced he will ask Congress to officially authorise military action against the jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
“We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” Obama began. “It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”
After his introduction, Obama began touting what he described as “a breakthrough year for America” that saw the fastest job growth since 1999 and the end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan.
“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” Obama said.
However, despite describing America as having been bounced back, Obama went on to say there was room for improvement.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” he asked, according to a copy of his prepared remarks distributed by the White House. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
Obama focused the bulk of his speech on economic policies. He branded his plans as “middle class economics.”
“That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” said Obama. “We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success — we want everyone to contribute to our success.”
While the Republican-led Congress will likely block many of the economic proposals Obama outlined in the speech, it was an opportunity for the president to brand himself and the Democratic party ahead of the next 2016 election.
One policy Obama called for in his speech is a $US3,000 tax cut to provide childcare for middle class and lower income families.
“It’s not a nice-to-have,” Obama said of childcare. “It’s a must-have.”
The president also said he wants Congress to vote on paid sick leave.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” said Obama.
Additionally Obama said he wants laws passed to ensure equal pay for women and an increased minimum wage. He noted these laws wouldn’t be a panacea, but suggested they can make a “meaningful difference” if Congress puts them in place.
“These ideas won’t make everybody rich, or relieve every hardship. That’s not the job of government. To give working families a fair shot, we’ll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognise that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice,” Obama said. “But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage — these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That is a fact. And that’s what all of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — were sent here to do.”
Another plan Obama described in the speech would provide qualifying students with two free years of community college.
“I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero. Forty per cent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market,” said Obama. “Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it — you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.”
Some Republicans have already expressed opposition to that proposal due to its estimated $US6 billion annual cost.
Obama also outlined a series of tax reforms designed to subsidise credits for middle class workers with a series of taxes on the wealthy and the financial industry. These will include an increase in the top capital gains tax.
“Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home. Let’s simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. And let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one per cent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” Obama said.
The Republican-led Congress is extremely unlikely to allow these tax reforms to become law. Obama’s remarks included an allusion to this opposition.
“So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way,” he said.
The economy won’t be the only major part of Obama’s speech. Obama also plans to ask Congress to authorise use of force against the jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). He had previously been criticised for not taking the effort to fight the group to Congress by lawmakers from both parties.
According to the prepared remarks, Obama will frame the war on ISIS as an example of the “smarter kind of American leadership” he has advocated, which focuses on combining “military power with strong diplomacy.”
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism,” Obama said. “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorise the use of force against ISIL.”
Obama also touted US diplomatic efforts in Cuba and Iran. His administration announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba last month and has been engaged in ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear program.
On the national security front, Obama also pushed his cybersecurity plan and efforts to combat climate change.
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities,” said Obama. “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.”
Obama described by referring to “values” as the “last pillar” of American leadership. He praised US efforts to protect religious minorities and become more inclusive to people regardless of sexual orientation. Obama also noted he plans to close the prison on the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The president concluded by referencing the speech the propelled him onto the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Obama recalled how he said “there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America — but a United States of America” in those remarks.
“Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it,” Obama said. “I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.”
This post was last updated at 10:37 p.m.
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