Updated 10:28 pm, Tuesday, January 20, 2015
President Obama, exuding confidence and more than a touch of defiance, laid out an agenda for “middle-class economics” Tuesday night that he knew would be a tough sell with Republicans who now control both houses of Congress.
His State of the Union address included tax increases and new programs such as tuition-free community colleges and paid sick leave for American workers. In other words, Obama made plain that he had no intention of being a lame duck in the last two years of his presidency.
The annual speech was an opportunity to make his case to the American people that gridlock is costing them action on matters they care about. Not surprisingly, Republicans were drawing lines in the sand even before the president spoke. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested the president needed to “turn the page” from a period of confrontation.
Obama used the phrase “turn the page” in his speech too, but in a very different context: He portrayed this as a moment for a nation emerging from years of war and recession to embrace an economic populism that would restore a society of opportunity.
Republicans have been especially critical of Obama’s proposal to raise $320 billion in new taxes on wealthy individuals and big financial institutions. He also has proposed free community college tuition, a widening of the availability of broadband Internet access and up to seven days of paid sick leave for workers.
Barring a welling up of public pressure, Obama’s tax and spending initiatives face grim odds in the Republican Congress. However, his agenda did include areas where bipartisan support was likely.
One was his pledge to seek congressional consent for military force against the Islamic State. This is a welcome turn from the pattern of presidents stretching their executive authority to commit U.S. troops into overseas missions that often prove more difficult and costly than they appeared on the drawing board.
Another area of common ground with Republicans — albeit with pockets of Democratic resistance — was his request for trade promotion authority. Obama rightly noted the potential global customer base in the 21st century economy, and the importance of having the United States involved in writing the rules.
On the environment, it was heartening to see Obama reiterate his commitment to addressing climate change, especially with the talks for a global agreement coming up in Paris. Obama seems to have regained his footing since the November elections. He pushed forward with executive actions to ease immigration rules on deportation and to expand relations with Cuba.
His approval ratings have improved markedly in recent weeks. His comfort and eloquence on the national stage was on full display Tuesday night. It was encouraging to see the president lay out a robust to-do list at this point in his tenure, but the results will be distressingly slim without Republican cooperation. The speech is the easy part of Obama’s daunting challenge.