President Obama on Tuesday challenged Congress to find a way to dodge the sequester and seize the opportunity for more-enduring deficit reduction, using his fourth State of the Union address to paint lawmakers as the obstacle to a more prosperous and inclusive country.
On fiscal matters, immigration reform, and gun control, Obama depicted Congress—and Republicans, specifically—as the stumbling block, on the heels of a reelection campaign frequently decried for not offering concrete proposals.
Obama vowed that "America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure,” but announced the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from that war zone within a year, and vowed that the war would be over by the end of 2014.
Citing a “decade of grinding war” and the “grueling recession,” Obama said, “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.”
In one of two mentions of his erstwhile rival, Obama proposed boosting the federal minimum hourly wage to $9 from $7.25, and mentioned that he and Mitt Romney “actually agreed” on indexing the rate to cost of living.
Obama’s minimum-wage overture reflects Democratic confidence that Republicans are wedged in an electoral bear trap. Accede too willingly to the president’s agenda, and they have abandoned their base and their principles. Oppose him at every turn—particularly on a matter as salient as minimum wage—and hazard being seen as callous to the plight of the working class, and unwilling to reinvigorate the middle class. The GOP hammered Democrats during the 2012 campaign with allegations of apathy toward small businesses—recall the crowing over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark—and lost, and Obama has evinced little sign of yielding that advantage.
Noting the nuclear test that North Korea conducted on Tuesday, Obama announced three manufacturing innovation institutes in 2013; said he would direct his Cabinet to prepare executive actions on climate change if Congress does not pass relevant legislation; emphasized a “fix-it-first” approach to infrastructure; and called for high-quality preschool for all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.
Obama did not lean into another front that has consumed Washington in recent weeks as much as fiscal matters: the confirmation fight for his choice to helm the Pentagon, Republican former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. While the Senate Armed Services Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to send the nomination to the floor, Hagel did not receive a mention.
On the Budget
The president’s budget message hued to the classic Democratic view: We should worry about the deficit, but not too soon. Nor should we cut spending too deeply.
Obama called for an additional $1.5 trillion in spending cuts, alongside the 2011 Budget Control Act’s existing spending caps. Savings would come from closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, overhauling the tax code, and making targeted cuts to Medicare.
The newest idea? Raising Medicare costs for wealthy seniors.
The president also argued that making cuts too soon to reduce the deficit would jeopardize the economic recovery and hurt the poor and senior citizens. “Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” he said.
The budget—along with a broad call to undo the sequester and come up with a grand bargain—dominated the first part of the speech. Quickly, the president turned to more politically popular economic themes, such as job creation.
On the Economy
Obama talked a lot about jobs. And why wouldn’t he? The economic recovery—now in its 44th month—has yet to hit its stride. Unemployment remains high, growth is sluggish, and forecasts for 2013 aren’t much rosier.
“Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment,” he said. “Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.”
The president introduced a four-part plan Tuesday for helping the middle class: Making the country a “magnet for jobs,” improving skills training, raising the minimum wage to $9 by 2015 from its current $7.25, and cutting the deficit.
He’ll need Congress’s help to get anything done that can really help the economy. For lawmakers so inclined, Obama certainly served up a menu of options. But the president largely rehashed his offer to Republicans on deficit reduction, setting up the same old fight as the biggest threat to near-term economic growth rapidly approaches: A series of budget battles over the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, funding the government, and raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
The president acknowledged the difficult road ahead. “I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won’t be easy,” Obama said. “The politics will be hard for both sides. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans. So let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let’s do it without the brinkmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. “
Obama’s top domestic priority—immigration reform—got surprisingly little airplay, no new details, and bottom-of-the-batting-order placement on his laundry list of agenda items.
Perhaps that’s because he has left it to lawmakers to work on the compromise legislation. “I applaud their efforts. Let’s get this done,” he said.
The president wants to put more resources and people on the U.S.-Mexico border than ever before, which would be no small feat. He also has new terminology for legalization of undocumented immigrants, creating a “responsible pathway to earned citizenship.” He also wants the bill “in the next few months,” which is likely a tall order.
In urgent rhetoric that named climate change not as a future threat but a crisis that has arrived, Obama called on Congress to enact legislation to cut carbon pollution and increase clean energy production.
But he acknowledged that action from Capitol Hill is highly unlikely on such a contentious issue, and declared, "If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will."
That means he’s preparing to work with the heads of all of his Cabinet agencies on a suite of executive-level climate-change actions. Among them: Environmental Protection Agency regulations that would force existing coal-fired power plants to cut their emissions of carbon pollution, and a slate of actions across agencies aimed at preparing U.S. cities and towns to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including increased flooding, drought, and more-extreme storms.
Obama did not mention the Keystone XL pipeline, a project climate activists have urged the president to reject.
On Gun Control
Obama reiterated his call for stricter gun-control policies, including bans on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. He also reinforced the need for tighter background checks and better access to mental health care.
An assault-weapons bill has been written by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., though several Republicans and some Democrats have come out against the proposal. Obama, however, asked simply that those proposals get a vote. "Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. "If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.”
Following several gun tragedies this year, the president alluded to the dozens of people sitting in the audience from across the country who were affected by gun violence. “The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence,” Obama said, “they deserve a simple vote.”
On National Security
Obama will reduce the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan by more than half by this time next year, a decision welcomed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who says Afghanistan is on track to assume responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
Even so, the U.S. is still negotiating an agreement for a follow-on force after the end of combat operations, to train and equip local troops and continue counterterrorism efforts to prevent the country from slipping back "into chaos."
But the impending drawdown of 34,000 troops was already met with resistance by some defense hawks on Capitol Hill. With Afghanistan’s fighting season beginning soon, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., warned, "This approach seems to be needlessly fraught with risk."
Obama also pledged to do "what is necessary" to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and warned North Korea, which this week conducted a nuclear test in violation of United Nations resolutions, to cease its provocations.
On Health Care
On health care, the president offered more of the same. Instead of new initiatives, he continued to advocate for Medicare cuts he endorsed last year in his fiscal 2013 budget.
Those proposals include some measures with bipartisan support—like increasing the premiums paid by wealthy and middle-class seniors—but others that are likely to be unpopular among Republicans, such as reducing the payments made to pharmaceutical companies for drugs prescribed to poor seniors.
Notable, though not surprising, was what was off the table: any changes to Medicaid or cuts to new insurance subsidies in his Affordable Care Act. To the extent the president is interested in reducing health care spending by the federal government, he has now placed the burden squarely on Medicare’s shoulders.
He also defended spending on medical research. That’s a position that most Republicans can agree with—though the coming across-the-board spending cuts will hit medical and other scientific research hard.
Right on the heels of an executive order he signed today, Obama named cybersecurity one of the White House’s main policy priorities for the year. “We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail,” he said. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air-traffic control systems.”
Attention to the nation’s cybervulnerabilities has exploded in recent months. In October, Panetta warned of an impending “cyber Pearl Harbor.” In January, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post all announced that they had been targets of sophisticated hacking attempts.
While Obama’s executive order doesn’t address cyberattacks of that kind, it does take steps to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure—systems that, if disrupted or destroyed, would have “a debilitating impact” on national security, according to the directive.
“Now,” Obama said, “Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.”
Nancy Cook, Coral Davenport, Brian Fung, Catherine Hollander, Fawn Johnson, Margot Sanger-Katz, Sara Sorcher, and Matt Vasilogam
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