The president also announced an assortment of new proposals in the speech that will cheer his base but are likely to face trouble getting through a divided Congress. For example, he may find Republicans a hard sell in his push for a $9-an-hour minimum wage, an ambitious new plan for universal access to pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten, assorted plans for green-energy subsidies, a raft of new gun laws and even a new call for climate change legislation.
None of his proposals will add to the deficit, Obama promised.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Obama said.
A minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $9 by the end of 2015 would give raises to 15 million workers, according to the White House, restoring the buying power the wage level had in 1981 and lifting many of those workers over the poverty line.
The pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten initiatives aren’t yet fully fleshed out — no price tag was provided by the White House — although officials promise they will be offset with cuts by the time the president presents his budget in mid-March.
The president’s climate change push has a steep climb, of course, and Obama faces a tall order given that many Republicans continue to express doubts about the science behind global warming or are not convinced that the government should act on it.
Obama noted that the 12 hottest years on record have come in the past 15 years, and he said the raft of extreme weather events of the past several years should not be considered a fluke.
“We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
Obama named specific goals, such as doubling renewable electricity generation again by 2020 and a new Race to The Top program to reward states for energy efficiency efforts.
He also said he wants Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution like the one Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., worked on. But the president also warned that if Congress won’t act, “I will.” That section got a chilly reception from the GOP.
However, his push for a comprehensive immigration policy rewrite got a warm bipartisan cheer, with Republicans such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah standing up to applaud his push. Hatch co-authored the Dream Act only to join in a filibuster of it in 2010, but the GOP has clearly had a change of heart on the issue.
Obama ended his speech with an emotional appeal for his gun control agenda, acknowledging that the proposals may not pass, but deserve a vote.
“This time is different,” he said, noting that overwhelming majorities support background checks and other proposals. He appealed to lawmakers using the names of recent gun violence victims, such as murdered Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton, whose family was in the audience.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.