President Barack Obama said Tuesday it was time for Americans to “turn the page” on years of economic troubles, terrorism and lengthy wars, using his sixth State of the Union speech to outline new tax policies that would hit the wealthiest Americans and give breaks to the middle class.
Obama spoke to a Congress controlled in both houses by opposition Republicans for the first time in his presidency. But the policies the president called for suggested that he had no plans to curtail his own agenda in favor of Republican priorities.
“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come,” Obama said.
The 2016 presidential election loomed over Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address, a speech to Congress and a national television audience focussing on his bid to use tax policy to ease the economic woes of beleaguered low-income Americans and the country’s shrinking middle class.
Obama’s speech proposed increased tax rates for wealthy Americans with much of the new revenue earmarked for measures to benefit low- and middle-income earners who have seen wages stagnate for years. While he made a bold proposal, tax-averse Republicans are unlikely to act on the president’s plan.
But Obama used one of his biggest platforms, a speech that was nationally televised to tens of millions of Americans on Tuesday evening, to highlight the issue of growing economic inequality, a critical marker for the next presidential campaign.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama asked in the excerpts of the speech released by the White House. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
Answering his own question, Obama said: “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.”
The Republicans were quick to respond. “Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” said new Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, referring to Obama’s health care overhaul. Her remarks were released ahead of delivery in the Republican response. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”
The president came out of his party’s bruising November election losses with a surprising burst of activity and a bump in approval ratings. He has already vowed to veto seven legislative measures that are coming out of the new Republican-controlled Congress – measures ranging from approving the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf coast to an effort to hobble his health care overhaul to budget actions that would undo his executive actions on immigration reform.
While the economy was expected to dominate the president’s address, he also promoted his recent decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and asked for a new congressional approval and funding for the military campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State group.
While Republicans won’t pass the new tax measures, Obama is putting them in the unappealing spot of blocking measures that would offer broad economic benefits to the middle class. Obama has a strong argument in that the U.S. economy is on course for a robust recovery from the Great Recession but most of the benefits have not found their way to middle America.
Obama looks ready to continue the partisan battle with Republicans that dominated all but the first year of his presidency. Regardless of the reticence of congressional Republicans to put a bigger tax bite on the wealthy, potential Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney already are talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities.