By Chris Powers – Special Projects Editor
Tuesday night, President Barack Obama laid out his plan for the upcoming year, and what he has called the fourth quarter of his presidency, amid the traditional pomp and circumstance that happens any time a president visits Capitol Hill. The speech marked the first time he has addressed a joint session of Congress since Republicans took control of the Senate in the last election.
The State of the Union address is required by the constitution which mandates that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Like many other practices, the specifics were left up to our first president, George Washington. It was Washington who decided to give an annual address and his successor John Adams followed suit. Thomas Jefferson, however, chose to submit his messages in writing, a tradition that continued until 1913 when Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice of personally delivering the speech.
In a break with tradition, Obama traveled the country previewing the proposals over the past few weeks instead of selling his ideas to the public afterwards. In a speech at a Ford plant in Warren, Michigan, the president likened it to opening Christmas presents a little early.
The theme for last night’s speech was middle-class economics and doubling down on the recovery effort that has been a big part of Obama’s presidency.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” Obama asked.
The president also announced several progressive programs that will likely have difficulty passing the Republican-controlled Congress.
Despite an increasing number of states raising their minimum wages across the country, many Republicans are not convinced. Obama challenged them, saying, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Another controversial move was the decision to send Congress “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” He compared it to making high school free and implementing the GI Bill, which allows veterans to attend college for free or low-cost. His reason was that, in the next decade, “two in three job openings will require some higher education.”
Obama’s plan would make two years of community college free to anyone willing to maintain a 2.5 GPA and remain enrolled at least half-time. Colleges would have to allow students to transfer to four-year colleges and/or train students in high-demand skill areas. The federal government would pick up 75 percent of the cost, with the rest to be paid for by the states.
“Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt,” Obama said.
The plan has several roadblocks ahead of it including where the funding will come from, which will likely be a major sticking point on Capitol Hill.
In the previous weeks, Obama also proposed changes to the tax code that would raise $320 billion from wealthy Americans and cut middle class taxes by $175 billion. However, he was much more vague during last night’s speech.
As laid out during his pre-speech tour, his plan would eliminate the “trust-fund loophole,” increase capital gains taxes, and impose a new fee on the nation’s biggest banks. It also includes an increase in child and education tax credits, a $500 credit for working parents and new retirement-savings incentives.
During last night’s speech, Obama framed the tax breaks as a way to help working families reduce their childcare costs. He hopes to reduce the burden of the two-income family “by creating more (tax) slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.”
The tax cuts are easy, but the rest of the plan will be much harder to sell. Most Republican lawmakers have signed a pledge to not increase taxes under any circumstances. Breaking that pledge would be extremely unpopular to their base and could cost them re-election.
In the wake of last month’s Sony hacking scandal, Obama wants to increase cybersecurity across the board including a 30-day notification law for consumers, an increase in data-sharing between government and private industry and $25 million in grants to historically black colleges and universities to help train cybersecurity experts.
The president also wants faster, cheaper internet and have it treated as a public utility like gas, water and electricity to allow increased regulation in pricing and more competition. He also proposed an expansion of high-speed internet providers to more rural areas of the country stuck on dial-up or expensive satellite internet. This echoed the White House’s net neutrality plan which was lauded by consumer advocacy groups and criticized by internet service providers.
“I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” Obama said.
Obama also tackled infrastructure concerns, proposed a cap on methane production and announced plans to mandate sick days for all workers. All of these programs are likely to come under fire from GOP lawmakers.
In an effort to appeal to bipartisanship, Obama spent several minutes towards the end of his speech, addressing how politics in Washington needs to change in order to “better reflect America’s hopes.”
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears,” Obama said.
Since he had already barnstormed his proposals ahead of last night’s speech, Obama will forgo the traditional stump speeches and instead participate in a live chat on YouTube hosted by several of the platform’s creators 5 p.m. Thursday. He will go back on tour in two weeks, after he sends his budget proposal to Congress.