President Barack Obama delivered a populist, election-year poke at a dysfunctional Congress in a State of the Union address Tuesday night filled with policy proposals and urgent rhetoric aimed at aiding the middle class.
The heart of Obama’s argument is that the middle class is in danger of slipping away, and that he needs to act — with or without Congress — to help give them a fair shake.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” he said.
Obama said he would work with Members of Congress if they would work with him, and he urged them to follow the example of the nation’s military in coming together to solve problems. “But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” he said.
Obama repeatedly acknowledged that the nation’s biggest problems may not be solved this year given Congress’ dysfunction.
“No matter what party they belong to, I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that because Washington is broken. Can you blame them for feeling a little cynical?” he asked. He lectured Congress for the “fiasco” of last year’s debt ceiling fight and lamented the “corrosive” effect of money in politics.
Obama also took aim at Congress’ own ethics and Senate filibusters.
Then-Sen. Obama embraced filibusters when Democrats were in the minority under President George W. Bush, but now he seems to have had enough of them. Obama proposed limiting filibusters to 90 days for judicial and “public service” nominations — a plan akin to the “nuclear option” that previous Senate majority leaders have suggested.
Obama also proposed tough new ethics rules for Members of Congress and lobbyists — rules that are sure to have Members of both parties complaining. He proposed conflict-of-interest rules banning Members of Congress from holding stock in companies that have business before their committees or from taking any official action that would benefit their financial interests. And he proposed banning lobbyists from bundling campaign donations for lawmakers.
But as expected, most of the president’s speech focused on jobs, with the president trying to put a shine on his record as one that took the economy from freefall to growth. For example, Obama claimed credit for saving the auto industry and restoring private-sector job growth.
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