Facing a Republican-controlled Congress in his sixth State of the Union speech, President Obama took credit Tuesday for an improving economy and focused on proposals aimed at advancing the middle class.
After years of recession and war, Obama claimed "the shadow of crisis has passed." In its place, he asserted, was a future marked by "a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production."
Here's what President Obama proposed on the policy front:
For years, President Obama has been wary of cheering too loudly about the nation's economic recovery for fear of seeming out-of-touch with hard-hit Americans or being caught short by another slowdown. It's happened before. But after what he called a "breakthrough year," Obama is setting caution aside.
"The shadow of crisis has passed," Obama said. "Tonight, we turn the page."
The president has reason to celebrate. Last year saw the strongest job growth in 15 years. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent. Inflation was a non-issue. And with gasoline selling for just over $2 a gallon in many parts of the country, drivers are expected to save hundreds of dollars at the pump this year.
Polls show Americans' attitudes about the economy are also improving — and that in turn has boosted the president's own poll numbers.
Wages remain stagnant, though.
The president has offered a variety of prescriptions to address that, and in his speech, he grouped those ideas together under a new label: "Middle-Class Economics."
Middle Class Economics
Obama's budget proposal will call for a number of new and expanded tax credits to help working families. He also wants Congress to require paid sick leave for the 43 million American workers who don't already have it. And because many jobs now require some form of higher education, Obama wants to let anyone attend community college for free, so long as they keep their grades up and graduate on time.
The president suggests paying for these proposals by raising the top tax rate on capital gains to 28 percent, and extending it to cover inherited wealth. The White House says 99 percent of the additional taxes would be paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. The idea is almost certainly a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Congress. But Democrats will use it as a rhetorical weapon to campaign on.
The first bill the new Republican Senate took up this year would green-light the Keystone XL oil pipeline, carrying oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf Coast of the United States. Obama has threatened to veto the measure, saying his Administration needs more time to decide whether building the pipeline is in the national interest.
Critics say the pipeline would worsen the problem of climate change by encouraging development of the carbon-intensive tar sands. In his State of the Union speech, Obama downplayed the pipeline controversy to focus on broader infrastructure needs, including modern ports, faster trains, and affordable broadband Internet.
"Let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline," Obama said. "Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year and make this country stronger for decades to come."
One area where Obama may have gotten more applause from Republicans than Democrats was his call for "fast track" authority to negotiate two big trade deals — one spanning the Pacific, the other the Atlantic.
Many members of the president's own party oppose the trade deals, and Obama openly acknowledged their skepticism. "I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype," he said. "But 95 percent of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities."
Republican congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have identified trade as one of the few areas where they think they can find common ground with Obama.
"Stopping ISIL's advance" is how President Obama described the U.S. bombing campaign against Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria...with the aim to "degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group." The president touted the U.S. leading "a broad coalition" including Arab nations "instead of getting dragged into another ground war." Translation: the U.S. will keep fighting an air war while others battle at ground level.
The president's apparent resolve not to send in ground troops may help garner support from Congress for the new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) he called on lawmakers to pass. It may also draw opposition from hawks, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, who say U.S. ground forces are needed to push back the gains Islamic State fighters have made this year.
One other unresolved question about the AUMF: who's going to draft (and thus own) the measure?
House Speaker John Boehner says he wants the White House to send such a proposal to the Hill; President Obama simply says he's committed to both parties to working on a text for the AUMF. One thing all parties agree on is that the two AUMF's from 2001 and 2002 currently being used to justify the air war against ISIS are obsolete and need to be replaced by a measure that has a clear expiration date.
The president departed from his prepared text in proclaiming "it's time to close Gitmo!" — a task he set for himself at the beginning of his presidency. Obama said he's reduced the prison population at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by half — and that's true. What he did not say was that even he thinks there are several dozen detainees being held there who are too dangerous to be set free, but against whom there is insufficient evidence for a court conviction. He did not propose what their fate should be.
President Obama is defending his new approach to Cuba, saying he's ending a policy that is "long past its expiration date." He used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to lift a decades old embargo on Cuba. Knowing that is unlikely, he's already chipped away at the embargo, easing many travel and trade restrictions on Cuba and sending Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, to Havana this week to begin talks on restoring diplomatic ties and re-opening embassies.
Opponents of the president's new policy invited some Cuban dissidents to the chamber to remind Obama of the ongoing human rights abuses on the island. The White House guest list included Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor who was freed in December after 5 years in a Cuban jail for trying to provide internet services on the island; Gross' release opened the door to these warming ties. He stood up to say "Thank you," as the President spoke about his case.
On Iran, diplomats trying to resolve the nuclear issue have missed a couple of deadlines, but Obama says there is still a chance between now and the spring to negotiate a "comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran."
"There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed," Obama said in his State of the Union, but he warned lawmakers that any new sanctions will "all but guarantee that diplomacy fails."
Obama has made this case before, arguing that the sanctions under consideration would divide the U.S. and its partners. The Obama administration has been working with the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China and has tried to keep up a united front. Lawmakers that support new sanctions argue that it took economic leverage to get Iran to the table in the first place.
As he outlined his broader foreign policy agenda, President Obama says he plans to lead "not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve." He touted his efforts to work with partners and not to get "dragged into another ground war in the Middle East."
Obama says the U.S. is leading a broad coalition to stop the advances of the self-proclaimed Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, supporting Iraqi forces and the "moderate opposition" in Syria to help. However, in Syria, the situation is far more complex. The opposition and some U.S. partners are less focused on countering ISIS than countering Bashar al Assad's regime.
Cybersecurity and Technology
President Obama called on Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation — something Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he's open to moving on (unlike immigration). So it's a good political move. But Obama may be missing the mark in terms of substance – maybe even making it easier for the private sector to pass the buck.
In this digital age, as companies throw our data into the cloud, they've got to treat that data like banks treat money – with real protections.
Obama wants more information sharing between the government and companies. But experts say that could give companies an excuse to just wait for federal dispatches or Most Wanted lists, and not vigilantly monitor their own networks for malicious software (malware) and other attacks.
Obama also wants consumers to be told, in 30 days, if their credit card number was stolen. But, critics say, the retailer Target sending you and me a letter doesn't solve the problem of mangled internal practices.
And the president is throwing stones from a glass house. So far, government audits indicate that federal agencies are failing to protect our data too, and tell us about it.
Another concern is that Obama's move to make tougher criminal justice laws, through reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, will be "too severe" on low-level hackers (some of whom are in fact white hats – the good guys telling companies about flaws in systems we use).
It's unclear how Obama plans to partner with other countries to take down cybercriminal rings and build international norms. But that's key, given how the Internet works.
While the president laid out a cybersecurity platform of sorts, he talked about technology a lot more in terms of economic growth. Just like the manufacturing sector is creating new jobs, he said, "there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist 10 or 20 years ago — jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla."
It's not clear what he'll expect from Silicon Valley in the coming year. Obama says businesses should connect with community colleges. But his plan has been criticized as an ineffective, indirect route to getting young people into tech when he could just support coding bootcamps.
President Obama made only brief reference to ongoing policing controversies in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., perhaps because the deaths of two black men in police-involved incidents remain under federal investigation.
But he reiterated his call for criminal justice reform, an issue his attorney general and several GOP members of Congress have been advocating at least since 2013. States have been leading the way.
The president also urged lawmakers to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an issue he'll press in a March 7 visit to Selma, Ala. But voting legislation is all but moribund in the House where Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte last week said he did not see any fixes were "necessary" following a sharply divided Supreme Court ruling that gutted the decades-old system for requiring many mostly Southern states to get federal approval before making elections changes.