President Barack Obama used his second-to-last State of the Union speech on Tuesday to pitch an aggressive agenda for his final years in office, positioning himself as a champion of a middle class that has yet to feel the effects of a recovering economy.
Obama urged Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy and spend the proceeds on helping middle-class Americans with a long list of new government help, including paid family leave, free community college, and new tax breaks for working couples and parents.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama said in a text of his speech as prepared for delivery. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
Speaking for the first time to a Congress that is now entirely Republican-led, Obama suggested ways he could work with the House of Representatives and the Senate, including on tax reform and trade.
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But he also seized for himself — and presumably for 2016 Democrats — the banner of income inequality, arguing that while the U.S. economy is recovering and Wall Street is booming, the middle class still needs a boost.
His speech suggested a framework for the coming campaign for a new president, one where top Republicans already signal they plan to stress the fact that the middle class lost ground in the Obama years while offering conservative alternatives to boost jobs and wages.
He even followed on his historic decision last month to normalize ties with Cuba by calling on Congress to lift the economic embargo against the island.
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” he said.
Republicans, who took control of both chambers in November on a platform that included vows to cut spending, had rejected many of Obama’s proposals before he began speaking.
“The American people aren’t demanding talking-point proposals designed to excite the base but not designed to pass,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Challenge us with truly serious, realistic reforms that focus on growth and raising middle-class incomes — reforms that don’t just spend more money we don’t have.”
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa delivered the Republican response, offering an alternative vision of governing.
“We heard the message you sent in November — loud and clear,” said Ernst, whose November victory helped Republicans take control of the Senate. “Now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”
Obama called for $320 billion in tax increases over the next 10 years, including fees on certain Wall Street firms, eliminating a “trust fund loophole” the White House says allows the super rich to pass on estates tax free, and raising the top tax on investment gains for the wealthy.
The White House argued that 99 percent of the effect of the tax proposals would be on the top 1 percent in the country, echoing a catchall phrase used to describe the very wealthy.
In return, Obama proposed using the new tax revenues to make two years of community college free for students, tripling the child care tax credit to $3,000 per child, increasing the minimum wage, providing workers with paid leave and creating a second-earner tax credit of up to $500 for families.
Obama appeared unchastened by the loss of Democratic control of the Senate. Instead, he seemed bolstered by the rising poll numbers that have come along with a recovering U.S. economy.
“At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production, we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” he said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come.”
The economy is now strong enough, he argued, that it needs to invest in the middle class, seeking to answer critics who note that middle-class wages have remained stagnant on his watch even as the overall economy has grown.
“At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” Obama said.
His fair shot included renewing a call for free preschool for every 4-year-old, to be paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes.
And he called on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow working Americans to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time. He said his budget will call for $2 billion in new money to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs.
He also called for tax relief for small businesses that begin retirement plans for their employees.
Obama’s speech came amid an uprising in Yemen, which Obama last year pointed to as a model of counterterrorism cooperation as he has resisted pressure to intervene militarily at flashpoints around the globe.
Though he used the speech to formally ask Congress to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State, he stressed that the U.S. is not considering ground troops.
“Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group,” Obama said. “This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”
In urging Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba, Obama said his administration’s shift in policy “has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
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South Florida, Cuba connections at State of Union Speech
President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night featured plenty of South Florida, Cuba connections.
Alan Gross, the American contractor held for five years in a Cuban prison, attended as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama. Gross was released last month as part of President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Raúl Castro’s government.
“After years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs,” Obama said pointing him out in the audience. “Welcome home, Alan.”
Gross wasn’t the only reminder about how U.S.-Cuba policy was front and center at the annual speech. Sen. Marco Rubio invited Rosa María Payá, daughter of activist Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a suspicious car accident on the island.
Rubio’s move is an attempt to highlight his opposition to Obama’s rapprochement with Havana. The late Payá was “assassinated” by the Castro regime, Rubio said in a statement, echoing the dissident’s family.
Separately, the first lady also invited Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a mom who also happens to be a climate researcher. With her seven-year-old son in mind, she left her position at Florida International University last year to become the Florida coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force, the group that nominated her to attend. Within three months, Hammer signed up over 30,000 new members.
Hammer, who was born in Guatemala and moved to Miami in middle school, brought along her mother, who recently underwent a kidney transplant and marked five years of cancer survival.
“For her to see her kids move ahead and make a difference in the world, she’s incredibly proud,” said Hammer, whose brother, the actor Oscar Sanchez, starred in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” and the upcoming “A Most Violent Year.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, invited same-sex married couple Todd and Jeff Delmay of Hollywood as guests. They were married by Judge Sarah Zabel as part of a duel ceremony on Jan. 5, the day the judge ruled same-sex couples could legally wed as part of a landmark ruling in Florida.
The couple was part of the local lawsuit aimed to overturning Florida's ban of gay marriage.
Cuban opposition leader Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antúnez, and his wife, Yris Pérez Aguilera, among the more outspoken of Cuba's dissidents, were guests of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
Finally, freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, was tapped by the Republican Party to deliver the Spanish-language response to Obama’s State of the Union.
Curbelo, who defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia in November, called the gig "a true privilege."