A defiant President Obama sketched a populist agenda for his final two years in office centered on free higher education, new worker protections and a sweeping tax plan that hikes rates on top earners to fund credits for the middle class – using his State of the Union address to set what could be a combative tone with the new, Republican-led Congress.
In the wake of big GOP gains in the midterm elections, Obama vowed Tuesday to defend signature accomplishments from his first six years in office. And he hammered the message that the economy, and the country, are bouncing back after the recession and two protracted wars.
“Tonight, we turn the page,” Obama declared, claiming: “The shadow of crisis has passed.”
The address reflected a president disinclined to cede ground in the wake of his party’s midterm losses. His speech was sprinkled with jabs at the “super-rich” and even the Keystone XL pipeline.
The president issued a broad veto threat aimed at Republican bills that would chip away at ObamaCare, financial regulations and his recent immigration actions.
“If a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it,” Obama said.
In his address, Obama repeatedly touted what he called “middle-class economics” as the engine for growth, and used that argument to push his controversial new tax plan.
“Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way,” Obama said.
Obama, in his address, was promoting a series of programs he previewed in the weeks leading up to it.
Most controversial is a plan unveiled over the weekend imposing more than $300 billion in tax hikes over 10 years – including on investment and inheritance taxes for top earners – to fund tax credit expansions for the middle class. The funding also would pay for an initiative providing free community college for two years for students who keep up their grades.
While Republicans have questioned the mechanics of the college plan, they have declared his tax proposal a “non-starter” in the new GOP-led Congress.
Indeed, the president delivers his second-to-last State of the Union with a weakened political hand, after Republicans took control of the Senate and built a historic majority in the House in November.
Yet Obama has made clear he plans to play “offense” in his final two years, and his speech Tuesday sets the stage for that political and legislative battle. Already, the White House has issued a string of veto threats, some aimed at preserving legislation and executive actions he pushed in his first six years.
Both Republicans and Democrats are appealing to middle-class voters as they begin the new Congress. But Obama’s State of the Union address, thematically, promotes federal government protections and programs as key to their security, where Republicans are making a flat pitch for private-sector job creation.
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the president to look beyond “more tired tax hikes,” and instead strive for “responsible reforms that aim to balance the budget.”
He also sounded a middle-class message, but urged the president to boost workers with bipartisan jobs bills, including by backing efforts to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who was elected in November to an open Iowa seat, plans to deliver the official Republican response to Obama Tuesday night. In excerpts of her prepared remarks, the senator presents a markedly different picture of the economy, where Americans “agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs.”
On the tax front, Ernst calls for simplifying America’s “outdated and loophole-ridden tax code” – not to finance more spending but improve the economy.
“So let’s iron out loopholes to lower rates — and create jobs, not pay for more government spending,” she plans to say. “The president has already expressed some support for these kinds of ideas. We’re calling on him now to cooperate to pass them.”