Better but Still Troubled: Our Take on the State of the Union

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Better but Still Troubled: Our Take on the State of the Union.

President Obama isn’t going to offer an objective overview of the country when he delivers his sixth annual address to Congress on Tuesday night. There are two education topics that US president Barack Obama will definitely talk about during his State of the Union speech—increasing online privacy measures for schoolchildren, and providing free community college for all Americans.

Obama may also touch upon universal preschool and the thorny issue of fixing the law known as No Child Left Behind, if education secretary Arne Duncan’s speech last week and Obama’s recently released tax proposals are indications of what’s to come. That speech was prior to the rise of the graphically brutal Islamic extremist network and its spread into Syria, Iraq and reportedly as far away as Afghanistan and Libya. Since he has only been in office a few weeks in 2009, Obama’s first speech to a joint session of Congress wasn’t technically a “State of the Union” address.

Obama’s calls for increasing taxes on the wealthy, making community college free for many students and expanding paid leave for workers stand little chance of winning approval from the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill. It was also before extremists mounted a deadly attack on a satirical newspaper in Paris, only to die in a subsequent firefight and leave multiple foreign terrorist groups claiming credit for the killings.

But the debate over middle-class economics is looking critical for the coming campaign. ‘‘Inequality — and especially the growing opportunity gap — have become the top litmus test of seriousness for 2016,’’ said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who has discussed inequality issues with the president and his advisers. ‘‘The entry ticket for the presidential sweepstakes is that you have a policy — some policy — for dealing with this issue.’’ Indeed, potential Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have been talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities. US schools are increasingly implementing online learning tools in the classroom, and outsourcing databases that keep track of everything from attendance to free lunch eligibility.

Let’s get the ball rolling.” Ever since Republicans took control of the Senate (and thus, both houses of Congress) in November’s election, Obama and congressional leaders have been circling each other like wary boxers, jabbing past each other’s ears and testing each other’s intentions. The President wasn’t the only Obama making waves, the First Lady was praised for taking advantage of her “right to bare arms,” wowing in a sleeveless Narciso Rodriguez frock. These and other measures, such as hiking capital gains taxes, imposing fees on large financial firms, are supposed to raise $320 billion to help the middle class. Right now, it’s mostly schools’ or school districts’ responsibility to make sure that students’ data is being kept private, and not used for advertising or other uses in the future. The first act of unusual behavior came when Justice Samuel Alito’s reacted to Obama’s criticism of the judicial branch for its reversal of the Citizens United case in 2010.

Obama wants to adopt federal measures based on a California law that puts that onus on the education technology companies, rather than on the schools. As the nation’s attention increasingly turns to the 2016 election, the Obama White House is making clear that it still wants to set the terms of the economic conversation.

But Obama said their decision would “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.” After the comment from the President, cameras panned to the section where the justices were seated, stone faced, except for Alito. The problem is by posturing this as a Robin Hood tactic, I fear he will strike the sort of confrontational tone that is aimed at setting the agenda for the 2016 presidential nominees and not produce meaningful change for middle class families now. This year, plans are in place to increase troop levels in Iraq to as high as 3,000, with as many as 1,000 soldiers heading to Syria to train the so-called “moderate opposition.” Troops in Afghanistan, who were supposed to have only a training mission for fledgling Afghan forces this year, are now 1,000 stronger than planned and armed with a mandate from Obama to conduct direct action raids against enemy forces.

In other positive news, the deficit has fallen sharply, thanks to a combination of slower health-cost growth and budget cuts (the latter championed by Republicans). Conflict and security likely won’t be the focal point of Tuesday night’s speech, in keeping with the usual priorities from Obama, who was elected on a pacifist and domestically oriented mandate. With Congress deadlocked over immigration reform, Obama used executive actions to defer deportation of millions of undocumented aliens; Republicans howled – and promptly voted (in the House) to repeal his action. Though Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is among the most liberal justices currently on the bench, she just couldn’t muster her energy to stay interested in Obama’s speech that night.

Obama has threatened to veto no fewer than five proposed GOP bills, drawing more Republican howls – although the president’s veto power is right there in the Constitution. (Ronald Reagan vetoed 39 bills in eight years; so far, Obama has vetoed only two.) Obama has sounded both notes in recent weeks. He wants to simplify the tax credits that students can apply for so that they can better take advantage of the money they’re eligible for, and use increased taxes from the richest Americans to help fund the community college programs. At a meeting with leaders from both parties, he said he planned to focus on “areas where we can agree … in the spirit of cooperation and putting America first.” But at a meeting with Senate Democrats, the president said he doesn’t intend to defer much to the new GOP majority. “I’m not going to spend the next two years on defense; I’m going to play offense,” he said, according to Politico. Instead he should be focusing on finding consensus on more comprehensive tax reform and job-creating policies that will force Republicans and Democrats to have political skin in the game. Obama’s economic proposals will do little to move the White House and Republicans closer together, given the GOP leadership’s aversion to raising taxes on wealthy Americans.

Obama has pushed for universal preschool for a while as the way to curb inequality early, and talked about it briefly during a speech at Northwestern in October: If we make high-quality preschool available to every child, not only will we give our kids a safe place to learn and grow while their parents go to work; we’ll give them the start that they need to succeed in school, and earn higher wages, and form more stable families of their own. Subtle remarks about defeating aggression in the world may mask new warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin and perhaps also to Chinese leadership, Bensahel says. Will he cast his new tax proposals — which don’t have a prayer of passing — as the only sensible way to revive middle class income growth, and paint his GOP opponents as defenders of greed? Obama will likely also use the Paris attacks to demonstrate the need for continued vigilance against terrorist threats, and may link it to the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a GOP-led Congress will suddenly compromise on their long-standing efforts to lower or eliminate the capital gains tax and end taxes on estates, not expand them.

Republicans aren’t going to decide whether to negotiate with Obama based on how badly he hurts their feelings (which are rarely as tender as they claim). Bachmann, who is now retired from Congress, insisted her separate reaction was “not to compete with the official Republican remarks” but the move was widely seen at a poke at establishment Republicans loathed by tea party followers.

Unless of course, the President can find a reason for folks like Paul Ryan, to support some of these measures — in exchange for a comprehensive individual and corporate tax reform. Obama doesn’t have much time left, but it seems to me that he is about to use it to draw political distinctions between the two parties in advance of the 2016 elections. Obama delivering his address the day after Martin Luther King’s Birthday, it’s also worth remembering that the country’s racial divides remain deep, with African-Americans still far behind other Americans by many measures. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to persuade their balky conservative followers to accept the fiscal deals needed to keep the government running. Obama said: “We’ve already announced over 500 reforms, and just a fraction of them will save business and citizens more than $10 billion over the next five years.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the White House’s tax proposal ‘‘the same old top-down approach we’ve come to expect from President Obama that hasn’t worked.’’ And Florida Sen. Instead, they would consolidate a few different tax incentives into one, and thus increase the maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to $3,000 for each child younger than 5, for families who make up to $120,000. (Currently, the tax credit averages $550.) That means families would get more money that they could spend on preschool if they’d like to, but they could also spend it on other childcare expenses, Welner says. They’ve been nervous about how far Obama will go to work with Republicans in areas such as tax and trade deals, and afraid that he may offer too much.

With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk.” As President Obama made his way up to the stage before the 2013 address, he gave an exploding fist bump to Republican Sen. Among the guests are Alan Gross, who was released from a Cuban prison last month as part of Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the communist island nation; Chelsey Davis, a student from Tennessee who plans to graduate from community college in May; and Dr. Republican senator Lamar Alexander’s reauthorization plan calls for states to determine how to test students and proficiency, while Duncan called for national standards based on standardized tests to remain in place. Presidents stretching back to Ronald Reagan have invited special guests to attend the address to prominently reinforce their messages — health care recipients, service members and the like. Rubio tried to be stealth and subtly snag a swig from his water bottle but instead of a surreptitious sip, the Republican star was mocked for the clumsy move.

Obama may dive into this debate during his speech, or he could just leave this one to Congress and Duncan to duke out, and comment once a more solidified draft of the bill has come through. Tuesday’s congressional guests include Cuban activists, celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, and former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease. Last year, a GOP congressman invited rocker Ted Nugent, who has referred to Obama’s administration as “evil, America-hating.” And another congressman brought Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson. First, while the unemployment rate is falling rapidly, there has been less progress in pulling back in the millions of Americans who dropped out of the labor force entirely during the recession and slow recovery. NY1’s Michael Scotto was interviewing Grimm and tried to ask Grimm about allegations on campaign finances, which set off the Staten Island statesman. “Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f—–g balcony… you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough.

One way of measuring it: The proportion of the population with a job fell nearly five percentage points from late 2007 to late 2010 — and has regained only one of those five percentage points since. But after a generation in which median real incomes have not risen appreciably, there are no Champagne corks for American workers until it shows up in the data. NEIL IRWIN The global economy’s soaring greenhouse gas emissions, chiefly fueled by burning coal and gasoline, have already triggered significant climate change.

The warming atmosphere is now causing damage that includes dying forests, collapsing sea ice, heat waves and torrential rains, according to a November report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Last week, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared that 2014 was the warmest year on earth since record-keeping began in 1880.

If emissions continue unchecked, the November report warned, society in the coming decades could face food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, and mass extinction of plants and animals. In response, governments around the world are negotiating a United Nations accord, expected to be signed in Paris in December, which would for the first time commit every nation to cutting its carbon pollution. Obama’s pledge depends on the enactment of a suite of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, but those rules alone won’t reduce emissions enough to meet the 2025 target. A global accord signed this year won’t take effect until 2020, and given the levels of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and the rapidly rising rate of global emissions, the planet is set to tip past an average temperature rise of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s the point at which, scientists say, the world will be locked into a future of irreversible climate change — and the best that governments can do after that is to adapt to the change and prevent it from becoming far worse. In 2014, the percentage of Americans without health insurance plummeted, as more people signed up for an expanded Medicaid program and bought insurance on new online marketplaces — both the results of the Affordable Care Act.

The people who got that insurance tended to be those with the largest economic disadvantages: young people, blacks, Hispanics, people living in rural areas, and people with the lowest incomes. It’s too early to know exactly what that change means for people’s health — medical care isn’t the main determinant of people’s health — but there’s some early evidence that expanded access to health insurance is improving many people’s financial well-being by making the care they need more affordable.

There is also a little good news about the quality of medical care: The rates of some important medical errors seem to be declining, though others have ticked up. Our expensive system has left workers shouldering a larger share of health care costs and still threatens the long-term viability of the federal Medicare system, a program with growing rolls.

MARGOT SANGER-KATZ Few trends have done more damage to the United States economy over the past few decades than the slow growth of educational attainment. The stagnation is a major reason for the great wage slowdown in this country: Without more highly skilled workers, the economy has struggled to produce enough high-wage jobs. Obama has vowed to improve the situation. “By 2020,” he said, when speaking to Congress shortly after taking office, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” How are he and the country doing? That pace of increase — about 0.8 of a percentage point a year — is faster than the average pace (0.3 of a percentage point) over the previous 30 years.

Five decades past the era of legal segregation, a chasm remains between black and white Americans — and in some important respects it’s as wide as ever. There are bright spots, including a rising number of blacks in executive and managerial jobs (not to mention top political jobs) and converging levels of both life expectancy and self-reported happiness. Economists say the lack of family-friendly policies is one reason that the share of American women in the work force has fallen recently, even as it has continued climbing in other high-income economies. Social scientists believe that family leave is a positive for children and parents — and employers, too, by increasing the chances that their employees will return to work after the birth of a child.

Research also suggests that some European countries may have family-leave policies that are too generous, tracking many women into part-time jobs that do not lead to positions of power.

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