By John Irwin
Who said anything about a lame duck?
Barack Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night was the president at his most confident and defiant.
It was a passionate defense of his administration’s record six years in office. And it made a clear case for the types of progressive reforms Obama hopes to enact into law in the future — or at least start a conversation about heading into 2016.
Obama’s relaxed, triumphal tone, fueled perhaps by stronger economic growth and rising poll numbers, was best on display during an ad-libbed moment late in his speech.
“I have no more campaigns to run,” he said to sarcastic applause from some Republicans.
“I know because I won both of them.”
It’s clear now that Obama does not intend to fade into the background during his final two years in office. It appears the president will continue to use executive orders and other tactics to change policy in a limited way now — without congressional approval — while setting the table for the debates to be had about the future as the presidential primaries heat up.
This speech was as much about the 2016 presidential election as it was about 2015. Obama wants to make sure candidates to be his successor — regardless of party — are talking about the issues he addressed last night: reducing income inequality, lessening the costs of higher education, battling climate change, reforming the tax code to close loopholes for the rich and for large corporations, and more.
You’d be forgiven if you thought Obama was heading into his final two years in office with the political wind at his back. While it’s true his approval rating is ticking up, there’s still little chance most of what he proposed (with a couple exceptions) stands any chance of passing the most Republican Congress since Herbert Hoover’s presidency. And despite pledges from Obama and Republican leaders to work together, veto threats and the GOP leadership’s staunchly conservative agenda make it clear that the legislative gridlock of the last four years is likely to continue.
But that isn’t the conciliatory Obama many Republicans thought they might have seen after his party’s drubbing in last year’s midterm elections. That was a defiant Obama freed from the constraints of campaigning and confident in his platform and place in history. That was the unapologetically liberal Obama many of his supporters have been yearning for for the better part of six years, and it was the one that’s sure to further alienate and frustrate Republicans.
Obama has set the table for his final two years in office — and perhaps for his successor’s first several years, as well. Now, it’s time to see what happens.
What he proposed
Obama laid out most of his State of the Union proposals in a series of speeches nationwide prior to the address, including a stop at a Ford factory in Wayne, Mich.
The ideas, likely to go nowhere, were broad with few specifics but were held together by the idea that “middle-class economics,” rather than trickle-down economics, works, as seen by the expanding economic recovery.
Below is a list of a few of Obama’s most notable proposals and ideas:
- Free community college: As promised, Obama made the case for making two years of community college “as free and universal in America as high school is today.” Dubbed America’s College Promise, Obama’s plan would have the government cover a student’s first two years of education at a community college as long as the student maintains a 2.5 GPA or better. How the program would be funded is unclear at this point, but it would be open to students of any age, is open to part-time students and could be applied to certificate programs, associate’s degrees or credits that transfer to a bachelor’s program. The federal government would cover 75 percent of expenses, while states would kick in the remaining 25 percent.
- Raising the minimum wage: Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, up from the current $7.25. Many states, including Michigan, have raised their minimum wages above the federal rate, but millions of Americans live in states that haven’t. And that wage is, when adjusted for inflation, below what it was in the 1960s and means someone working full-time would only make $15,000 per year. Any change would impact only a very small share of Americans, though. Only 4.3 percent of hourly workers work at or below the minimum wage, according to Vox.
- Equal pay for equal work: The president urged Congress to pass legislation closing the gap between the average wage of male and female workers, who make about 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. The causes of the wage gap are under scrutiny from critics, but Democrats have been pushing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require employers to justify any discrepancies in wages.
- Paid sick leave: The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave for its workers, but that would change under the Healthy Families Act, which would give workers seven sick days per year.
- Cutting taxes for middle-class Americans: Perhaps influenced by populist Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren or by newly famous economist Thomas Piketty, Obama called on Congress to cut taxes for middle-class families and workers and paying for it by raising the capital gains tax, which disproportionately impacts high-end earners, as a way to further stimulate economic growth and to rein in growing income inequality.
“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong.”
“At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”
On the economy:
“The verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works.”
“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come. Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
“We need to lower the cost of community college – to zero.”
“Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”
On hiring veterans:
“As a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American Dream they helped defend.”
On criminal justice:
“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”
“I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best.”