President Obama’s State of the Union address wasn’t so much about the state of the union as it was about the state of the Republican Party.
Obama said, in effect, that Republicans have taken themselves out of the national conversation. Their dire predictions of fallout from the Affordable Care Act and other White House initiatives have not come true yet they refuse to ease their obstructionist approach. Instead, they’ve read the result of a low-turnout midterm election as a mandate to stiffen their opposition.
Perhaps the clearest expression during the entire speech was not a line from Obama but the dour visage of House Speaker John Boehner. It said: “We’re not listening, and what you’re saying isn’t going to happen.”
The president nonetheless insisted on speaking about what is happening and what should happen. He said 2015 is a “breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.”
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Obama told the Republican lawmakers with an edge of exasperation but also with the hard-won knowledge that no measure of economic success would change their minds: “This is good news, people.”
The president spoke over the heads of the Republican majority and addressed Americans who are coming to see that he is not the caricature emperor/incompetent painted by the GOP and Fox News.
Policies show results
The president has tried to get the nation out of wars and back to work, and his efforts – despite being miscast and obstructed by congressional Republicans – are yielding results. Now he is proposing doing more. He knows Congress will not pass his proposals, but he thinks it’s worth laying out what could happen, indeed, what needs to happen.
And what needs to happen most of all is for Congress to start working for more than the rich and corporations. The middle class, the president said, deserves a boost. He suggested raising taxes on the rich who have profited immensely from the economic recovery and using the revenue to help middle-income Americans who are still struggling with flat wages.
Economic inequality is a growing problem in a nation that prizes equality of opportunity. If only a few prosper hugely while most work without gain, opportunity is far from equal.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama asked. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
The president’s tax proposals are modest by historic standards and make perfect sense for a nation where incomes are terribly lopsided in favor of the very rich. He proposes, for instance, that profits from capital gains be taxed more like standard income. He would increase the top capital gains tax rate rate from 25 percent to 28 percent, the same level it was under President Reagan. And he would fix a loophole through which some capital gains under $1 million can go untaxed. Politico reports that the Congressional Budget Office calculated that the loophole cost the Treasury $51 billion in 2013 and that 21 percent of the tax benefits went to those in the top 1 percent of income.
Contrast that cost with the cost of the president’s proposal to make community college tuition free – $60 billion over 10 years. Republicans say the U.S. can afford the loophole for the 1 percent but can’t afford the much lower cost of giving millions of Americans a better education that would improve the quality of the nation’s workforce.
Republicans chose not to listen with interest Tuesday night, but they’ll get another chance to hear Obama’s message. Next time, though, it will may well be delivered by the voters.