The same ol’ State of the Union

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Obama vs. the 1 percent.

The morning after throwing down a partisan gauntlet in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama jetted off to Idaho on Wednesday to sell his agenda and check off another state — the 47th he’s visited since taking office. “I don’t know that he would describe it as his bucket list,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.

But his ambitious array of proposals to raise stagnant incomes and provide more government support for struggling working families will frame his last two years in office and help make the politics of rich and poor a central issue in the campaign to succeed him. The first applies to stock dividends and long-term investment gains, which are taxed at a rate of no more than 20 percent (plus a 3.8 percent surtax for very high earners), compared with as much as 39.6 percent for ordinary income. Instead, he made popular proposals that Congress is not likely to approve — free community college, a tripled child care tax credit and paid sick leave, all funded in part by raising the capital gains tax on the rich. With the economy finally on more solid ground, even leading Republicans — on Capitol Hill and on the nascent 2016 presidential campaign front — are tempering complaints about overall economic growth and refocusing on the more intractable problem of income inequality. Both sides seem to agree that something needs to be done about rescuing some disposable income for the under classes without which America is unlikely to ever see another real economic boom.

Along the way, he cited achievements during his administration: the Affordable Care Act, which has given health insurance to an additional 10 million Americans; the surge in new jobs; the drop in the unemployment rate to 5.6 percent and, more disputably, U.S. successes in fighting terrorism around the world. Mitt Romney, vowing a campaign to “end the scourge of poverty” if he runs for president a third time, has backed raising the minimum wage over the wishes of congressional leaders.

Similarly, Jeb Bush’s new super PAC, announced with the fanfare of a presidential declaration, proclaimed: “While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” At a closed-door retreat last week, Sen. The benefits accrued almost entirely to the rich: They boosted the after-tax income of the top 1 percent by more than 6 percent and had an almost negligible effect on the lowest-earning 40 percent of U.S. households. In its Jan. 20 issue, the Post-Gazette may have set the stage by publishing a report on Page A-4, “Richest 1% May Dominate Wealth by ’16,” and on its Perspectives page, “Soak the Rich?” by Paula Dwyer. 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. Wages have failed to rise, manufacturing isn’t what it used to be and two spouses must work these days to provide what one brought home in the past.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, veered into Republican territory when he vowed to pursue “pro-growth business tax reform that protects and strengthens the middle class, lowers rates, simplifies the system, levels the playing field, and eliminates unfair and inefficient loopholes.” Rep. The thrust of the news article is that the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population already controls 48 percent of the planet’s wealth and that percentage is increasing. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and perhaps the Republican Party’s leading voice on poverty issues, praised the president’s “gifted speech” on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and said he was glad Obama had “dialed down on the partisan class-warfare rhetoric.” Ryan said accord could be reached on ways to reduce poverty through expanding the earned income credit to childless adults, as both he and the president have proposed, and drafting a public works bill aimed at modernizing the nation’s aging infrastructure.

Faces on the GOP side of the House chamber were stone when he sang the praises of a tax code that shifts the burden to the wealthy, of his sweeping immigration orders, of the need for robust action on climate change. Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said Republicans needed to do a better job of explaining their policies in an emotional way that shows voters they care about them and understand their life experiences. “It’s not that we want to cut taxes because the math looks better,” he said. “It’s because we want people to make better decisions for themselves and believe they know how to use their money better than the government.” “It’s not just balancing a budget for the sake of balancing a budget,” Spicer continued. “It’s balancing a budget because right now we’re heaping debt and burden onto the next generation, and that’s not fair to them.” The problem for Republicans, though, is that a debate over wage stagnation and a shrinking middle class plays on Democratic turf, where Democrats can offer up what Romney once derided as “free stuff.” Rep. Obama would increase the top capital-gains rate only to 28 percent and would require heirs to pay tax only on investment gains exceeding $200,000 per couple. One would have to believe that breaching the wall between facts and commentary would encourage politicians and pundits alike to reach for more amelioratory phraseology before launching attacks on others’ proposals. At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.

In a world in which everyone started with nothing and spent all their savings over their lifetimes, critics of the idea would be right to protest: Taxing wealth would probably inhibit the investment needed for the economy to grow. On Wednesday, congressional Democrats reintroduced legislation to block companies based in the United States from shifting their headquarters elsewhere to lower their tax burden. On foreign policy, he called for easing relations with Cuba, pursuing the Iran nuclear talks, increasing cyber protection, addressing climate change, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and seeking fast-track trade authority. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., proposed an expansion of Social Security. “This plays to the Democratic sweet spot,” said James Pethokoukis, a commentator with the conservative American Enterprise Institute who writes on economic policy. “They can say, ‘Hey, we have a whole set of answers.’” Republicans need a serious response, Pethokoukis said. Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another – or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?

It can’t just be ‘No.’” On Wednesday morning, for instance, House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in two weeks. Like Republicans and unlike the president, the Israeli leader is impatient for a fresh round of sanctions to pressure Iran to scrap its nuclear program. The median weekly wage for full-time workers at the end of 2014 was $796, up from a seasonally adjusted $794 a year before, and actually below the levels in 2009, when the expansion began.

So the Israeli-Republican collaboration sets up a sort of rebuttal, one for which the White House got barely a heads-up from Boehner before the announcement. Chen, the former Romney adviser, said conservative economists had focused on wage subsidies through the tax code and more aggressive worker retraining programs through public-private partnerships and apprenticeships. Ben is back in construction – and home for dinner every night. “It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” America, Rebekah and Ben’s story is our story. You’re the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.

Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years.

We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. But here’s the thing – those of us here tonight, we need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. Like millions of hardworking Americans, Rebekah isn’t asking for a handout, but she is asking that we look for more ways to help families get ahead. In fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year. During World War II, when men like my grandfather went off to war, having women like my grandmother in the workforce was a national security priority – so this country provided universal childcare. It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us. But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage – these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world.

Thanks to Vice President Biden’s great work to update our job training system, we’re connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics. Tonight, I’m also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education. We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn’t even exist ten or twenty years ago – jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come. 21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas.

That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair. Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense. I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine – one that delivers the right treatment at the right time.

I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs – converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kid; pushing out into the Solar System not just to visit, but to stay. Let’s simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.

Instead of Americans patrolling the valleys of Afghanistan, we’ve trained their security forces, who’ve now taken the lead, and we’ve honored our troops’ sacrifice by supporting that country’s first democratic transition. Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.

And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small – by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.

As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of “small steps.” These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids. In West Africa, our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola – saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease. In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules – in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief. And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.

That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.

It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws – of which there are many – but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for – arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

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