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Obama must work with Congress

February 1, 2014 

  • In summary

    White House signals focus on helping more Americans achieve middle-class status

Some predicted before President Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union speech that the world would see a rogue president, so frustrated with Washington gridlock that he was prepared to go it alone with an ambitious agenda of executive orders. But moments into the speech, it was apparent that Obama still hopes to work with Congress to get things done.

Notably, he indicated that he plans to pressure Congress to focus on the central theme of the rest of his presidency: Giving all Americans a fair shot at reaching middle class status or better.

That goal will include unilateral action on his part, such as an executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees of government contractors from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. But that will affect only a few hundred thousand workers.

Obama would prefer to see an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 for all workers, a figure, he pointed out, that would be the equivalent in inflation-adjusted dollars of what minimum-wage workers were earning during the late 1960s. And that would require an act of Congress.

Obama also promised to use his authority to create new retirement savings plans with a guaranteed return for workers whose employers don’t offer such plans. White House officials estimate that about half of all workers have no work-based retirement plan.

Declaring that “climate change is a fact,” Obama pledged to enforce new federal air pollution rules that should help retire many of the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Coal plants already are being squeezed out by cheaper gas-powered plants and alternative energy sources. Acting unilaterally, the president can help ensure that coal eventually will be replaced altogether as a power source.

The president also said he would host a summit to find ways to help working families, instruct Vice President Joe Biden to review federal job training programs, improve the efficiency of the federal permitting process and urge companies to increase apprenticeships. All are worthy but modest proposals, and far from indicating that Obama suddenly is drunk with executive power.

In fact, much of what he proposed Tuesday night would require congressional action, and most of the proposals he mentioned are ones he has championed in the past. For example, Obama made another plea for comprehensive immigration reform – an accomplishment that could be politically beneficial to both parties.

He also asked Congress to expand the earned-income tax credit – a program initiated during the Ronald Reagan administration – to include childless workers. This would both increase incentives to work, and help lift unmarried people out of poverty. That also ostensibly could win GOP support.

The president asked Congress for more money to extend unemployment insurance; to fund 4-year-old kindergarten for all children; to cut subsidies for oil companies and use some of the money to encourage development of new green power technology; to fund infrastructure projects; to protect voting rights; to pass gun-control legislation; and to close the prison on Guantanamo. All are old proposals at which Congress has balked in the past.

In regard to Obamacare, he challenged Congress essentially to put up or shut up. He said that if Republicans have ideas that would improve the Affordable Care Act, he is willing to listen but it is futile to stage “another 40-something votes” to repeal “a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.”

Obama gave only slight attention to foreign policy in the speech. He emphasized that U.S. military interventions – especially America’s longest war, in Afghanistan – were coming to an end. And he pledged to veto any bill that increased economic sanctions on Iran, jeopardizing diplomatic efforts to get Iran to forsake development of nuclear weapons.

But while foreign policy received little mention and few new major domestic programs were announced, the speech seemed significant in signalling the direction in which the president hopes to take the country and the theme Democrats will employ in the upcoming elections.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Obama and the Democrats are betting that a message like that will resonate with voters tired of watching the top 1 percent prosper while they run in place. And it’s an issue that Republicans ignore at their peril.

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