Obama Challenges New GOP Congress in State of the Union (Updated)
Updated 11:59 p.m. | A president energized by an improving economy challenged the new Republican Congress in his 2015 State of the Union address to focus on the middle class and find a bipartisan path forward — while vowing to veto efforts to undo his actions on immigration, climate or health care.
President Barack Obama declared his policies to be working — doing a victory lap on slashed deficits, lower gas prices and a shrinking unemployment rate.
Gone are the calls for deficit reduction, grand bargains and entitlement cuts from past speeches. Obama instead focused on investing in middle-class priorities such as child care, college and universal preschool, mostly to Democratic applause and Republicans sitting on their hands.
“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,” Obama said in his prepared remarks. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
While the White House wanted the speech to be received as optimistic, Obama also laid out markers for the new Congress as Republicans look to roll back the Affordable Care Act, climate regulations, Wall Street overhauls and his immigration policies.
“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 to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it,” he said.
The line predictably didn’t get a positive Republican response, but there were no outbursts either as Republicans have sought to avoid any “You lie!” moments.
To the extent there was an unscripted moment, Obama reacted to Republicans appearing to question his statement that he had no more campaigns to run.
“I know because I won both of them,” zinged Obama.
Obama also called for Congress to avoid self-inflicted wounds like another government shutdown — a nod toward the coming fight over funding the Department of Homeland Security when the stopgap measure expires next month.
Yet Obama also expressed hope that the parties could come together and overcome the cynicism that they can’t get anything done.
“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.
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different,” Obama said.
The insta-react from Republicans was almost universally negative. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who sat glumly behind the president for most of the speech, lamented it as “more taxes, more government.”
“His whole tone is defiant,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. He noted that Obama did mention areas of possible agreement, such as cybersecurity, trade and maybe taxes.
“But he is so detached and uninvolved with the legislative process. He just speaks as if he were on Mount Olympus saying if you sent this to me I will veto it. That’s not the recipe for getting anything done.”
Indeed, most of the new policy prescriptions in the speech — headlined by his $320 billion tax package — were previewed in recent days and pre-butted by the GOP, with Republican leadership press shops in overdrive ripping the president for his tax plans in particular, and for making little-to-no pivot to reflect their blowout victory in the midterms.
When reporters asked senior administration officials why the White House shifted its rollout strategy, they said they felt the president had set the agenda following the midterm elections.
“That’s not something that we wanted to give up,” one official said.
And the official said the changing media landscape made it more important to reach as many different audiences ahead of the speech as possible.
The State of the Union address, of course, includes a laundry list of proposals, but the officials said they were trying to make this year’s speech more thematic and with fewer little nuggets of news — although that’s something White House aides almost always say even as the speech itself inevitably includes said laundry list.
White House officials also took pains to note that several of the president’s ideas have been proposed by Republicans in the past.
But Republicans are already calling Obama’s plan to pay for those new tax breaks a non-starter — a capital gains tax rate hike and the end of what the White House calls the “trust fund loophole,” which wipes out unrealized capital gains at death.
There are a few areas where the White House has real hopes of securing congressional passage — including a cybersecurity bill, fast-track trade authority and crafting a new Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. All are items where Republicans have indicated a willingness to work with the president, and those items all received hearty — and rare — GOP applause.
But in a nod to the fact that the bulk of the president’s proposals in recent years have crashed and burned, Obama talked a lot about actions he is taking on his own — such as reducing mortgage costs or taking on climate change.
Democrats, meanwhile, were ebullient.
“Barack Obama’s back,” quipped Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., when asked to sum up the speech in three words.
On foreign policy, the president is looking to reorder America’s footprint, focusing less on boots on the ground and more on building coalitions and empowering local partners as the model to fight terrorism. He talked up his new Cuba policy and asked Congress to begin the process of lifting the embargo.
And he warned again that he will veto any new Iran sanctions bill while talks aimed at curbing that nation’s nuclear program remain underway.
With Obama’s boldest proposals — such as free community college — facing an uphill battle to make headway in Congress, the White House is convinced it’s good for them to have what they expect to be popular proposals up against Republican actions — like another effort to repeal the health care law — even if they don’t become law.
If Congress doesn’t act, they promise the president will push his ideas state by state, like he has on the minimum wage.
Obama also has hopes Congress will reach a deal on infrastructure funding, a bipartisan priority — although in the speech he referred — although not by name — the the fight over Keystone as a “single pipeline.”
Obama also brushed off speculation that he was looking to set the stage for the next election — noting he has run his last race and his only agenda is to do what he thinks is best for the country.
One official acknowledged “we’re going to disagree over most things” with the new Congress, but said Obama hopes Republicans are prepared to “seize common ground where it exists. … We would relish the opportunity to do that.”
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.
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