Even President Barack Obama’s most fervent opponents must acknowledge that he’s getting quite good at putting them on the defensive. Facing a Republican Congress and with only two years remaining in his presidency, he seems to come up with a new idea every couple of weeks to drive them up a wall. So he certainly wasn’t going to let the State of the Union address go by without using the opportunity — days of pre- and post-speech commentary, plus an audience in the tens of millions — to its utmost.
At Tuesday’s speech, Obama announced a series of proposals meant to aid middle class and poor Americans and address inequality, most particularly an increase in the child care credit and a $500 tax credit for working couples. To pay for it, investment and inheritance taxes on the wealthy would be increased and some loopholes that small numbers of the super-rich (like one Willard Romney) exploit will be closed. While the SOTU is often the occasion for dramatic announcements that are soon forgotten, this one lands in the center a debate that is looking like it will shape the upcoming presidential race. Naturally, Republicans are not pleased.
But if you listen carefully to what they’re saying, you'll notice that they are barely mentioning the proposals for middle-class tax breaks which are supposed to be the whole purpose of this initiative; instead, all their focus is on the increases America’s noble job creators would have to endure in order to pay for it.
“Slapping American small businesses, savers and investors with more tax hikes only negates the benefits of the tax policies that have been successful in helping to expand the economy, promote savings, and create jobs,” said Orrin Hatch. “More Washington tax hikes and spending is the same, old top-down approach we’ve come to expect from President Obama that hasn’t worked,” said John Boehner’s spokesperson. “This is not a serious proposal,” said Paul Ryan’s flak. “We lift families up and grow the economy with a simpler, flatter tax code, not big tax increases to pay for more Washington spending.” For the record, a “flatter” tax system means either the poor paying more or the rich paying less, though Republicans never say which they prefer.
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Marco Rubio was on the same page. “Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful,” he said on Face the Nation. “The good news about free enterprise is that everyone can succeed without punishing anyone.” That was about as close as any Republican came to actually talking about the tax cuts Obama is proposing (though this National Review editorial does discuss them, by arguing that it’s an attack on motherhood). That’s probably because Republicans been in favor of ideas like them in the recent past.
While Obama does want to provide new funds to make community college free to anyone who wants it, most of his proposals in this round use the tax code to help people of modest means, which is exactly what Republicans usually suggest when they’re forced to come up with an idea to help the poor or middle class. Since they believe that government programs to help ordinary people are useless almost by definition, the only way to give anyone a hand is with a tax cut. And yes, the hand they usually extend is toward the wealthy, whose burdens are so crushing that justice demands that lawmakers not rest until they can be afforded relief. But tax cuts are so magical they can help anyone, which is why Republicans been in favor of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child care tax credit before.
But paying for it by increasing investment and inheritance taxes on the wealthy, like Obama is proposing? Not on your life.
One thing’s for sure: as the economy improves, both parties are now being forced to address the underlying issues of stagnant wages and inequality that have been an anchor around ordinary people’s lives for the last few decades. It’s fair to say this isn’t the debate Republicans want to have, and it’s easy to mock them for their insistence that they’re really the party with something to offer the middle class and the poor. But it’s a lot more productive to just take them at their word and see what they actually propose to do.
So Mitt Romney says he has cast off his previous contempt for those of modest means and now wants to focus his 2016 presidential campaign on the issue of poverty? All right — what are his ideas? If they’re actually worthwhile, he should get whatever credit he’s due. If it’s more trickle-down policies and stern lectures about bootstrap-pulling, then we'll know nothing has changed.
You can argue — and many will — that it’s pointless for Obama to introduce significant policy proposals like this when he knows they couldn’t make it through the Republican Congress. But what alternative does he have? He could suggest only Republican ideas, but he wouldn’t be much of a Democratic president if he did that. Or he could offer nothing at all, and then everyone would criticize him for giving up on achieving anything in his last two years. If nothing else, putting these proposals forward can start a discussion that might bear legislative fruit later on. Major policy changes sometimes take years to accomplish, so it’s never too early to start. And if Republicans have better ideas, let’s hear them.
© 2015, The Washington Post