Image courtesy of the White House

Image courtesy of the White House

After six years in office, President Barack Obama delivered his seventh State of the Union address to Congress and the American public on the anniversary of his inauguration on January 20, 2009. For the first time in his presidency, the national economy looks improved, with “record low unemployment” and steadily increasing economic growth. For a man beset by congressional inaction, President Obama seemed remarkably upbeat. The President made a particularly strong ad-libbed comment on winning both elections, and not being concerned with having to win another: “I have no more campaigns to run. I know, because I won both of them”.

The President’s address to Congress focussed heavily on economic opportunity, with a proposal to increase the maximum tax rate on long term capital gains and instituting paid sick leave. “We’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” he stated. President Obama also implored Congress to increase the minimum wage, which it last did in 2009, from $6.55 to $7.25. According to some analysts, if the minimum wage had been adjusted every year since 2009, it could sit somewhere between nine and eighteen dollars an hour. President Obama has endorsed an increase to $10.10. It is a modest proposal that may not have much sway in a Republican-dominated Congress that blocked such legislation even before the midterm election, in 2014.

The President’s comments, which included proposing to “…close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.” This inequality is not limited to the United States: OXFAM, a charity group involved with global poverty reduction, revealed a report on January 18, days before the State of the Union address, warning that 1 percent of the world’s wealthy are poised to control over half of the world’s economic wealth by 2016.

These policy priorities, within the thematic lense of global and national inequality, would typically find no easy footing in the legislative chambers of this country. As mentioned before, Republicans have not received these proposals well, and have refused passing any increase in the minimum wage. This could substantially dampen any growth in the middle class implored by President Obama.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton gave a State of the Union address focused on social and economic reform that was heavily focussed on optimizing existing programs and rooting out abuse of Medicare and Social Security, and on lowering taxes. The result of which saw the passing of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and the 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act, precipitating a sustained reduction in the national deficit, as well as lowering the capital gains tax, a legacy that the current President has sought to reverse in an age of economic inequality.

This year the President has been confronted by an economy wherein the majority of Americans still struggle for job security, higher wages, and time off for illness or pregnancy. The message of higher wages, as well as a middle-class cash injection fueled by the reduced price of gasoline, would be received well by Americans, who have indicated stronger approval of the the President in the wake of falling gas prices and economic recovery. It seems that the speech rides on the crest of this optimism. More Americans have money they could not spend even a year ago as a result of falling oil prices. President Obama’s remarks did feature a lead-in statement of being less dependent on foreign oil than at any point in the last thirty years.

Outside the socioeconomic policy agenda proposed by the President, he also focused his speech on climate change, in particular the agreement made between China and the United States last year. This agreement aimed to cap Chinese carbon emissions by 2025, and to reduce US emissions to 26 percent below 2005 standards by the same year. This cooperation between superheavy economies on carbon reduction was tempered by a request to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Congress before China had the chance to write rules on its own terms on how trade would be conducted in its home region. Additionally, the Keystone Pipeline proposal was mentioned as a kind of distraction from a larger and bolder goal of creating better infrastructure: “Let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan,” the President said. In his implicit mention of the controversial project that would move extracted crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama essentially gave no rephrasing of his administration’s threat to veto any legislation passed by Congress authorizing the construction of the 10,708 miles of pipeline, turning the project into an opportunity to cooperate on broader infrastructure spending.

It was a bold address, from beginning to end, that could be read to indicate a challenge to the newly minted 114th Congress, but also as an invitation to think in large terms. Republicans will likely see most of the President’s proposals as a way to increase government spending and raise taxes, but the Republican responses were a fractious display, including a flop from Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas, and a Spanish translation that did not match the official rebuke made by Joni Ernst, Republican senator from Iowa. If legislation is to be passed by the Congressional Republican majority, it must come with the visions offered by the President at this address.

Pieter van Wassenaer '16

Written by Pieter van Wassenaer '16

Pieter van Wassenaer is an Associate Editor for the Cornell Policy Review and Master's of Public Administration Candidate at The Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He is concentrating in Government, Politics, and Policy Studies and his interests include issues of European integration, national identities, and intergovernmental organizations. He is a...
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