Editorial: President’s speech frames the political debate for 2016

The brilliance of President Obama’s state of the union speech Tuesday night was that it set the political stage for the presidential election two years from now in terms favorable to Democrats.
It was not a speech focused as much on specific initiatives, but rather on what principles he thought united Americans. Over the next two years, he suggested, he will travel state-to-state stressing two themes: 1) the need for bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill for the common good, and 2) passing measures that strengthen the middle class and reduce the growing income gap between the wealthiest top 5 percent and everyone else in America.
Without saying as much, the president conceded the political reality that he and the Republican-controlled Congress will not be working on many common fronts during the next two years. Rather, the president said, he will be protecting the progress made over the past six years on such issues as health care reform, his executive action on immigration that broke Republican gridlock on the issue, changes to finance and banking laws, and foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East, Russia and Cuba. By using his veto power to force public debate on those issues and others, he will put Republicans on the defensive as they support measures that favor the rich over a middle-class that has seen wages stagnant for the past decade, and support foreign policy tactics that often emphasize power over diplomacy.
Adding to that political strategy, he also proposed several new initiatives that will generate wide public appeal, even if they stand little chance of passage, such as:
• increasing the child care tax credit to $3,000 annually, and making the maximum credit available to families with incomes up to $120,000;
• increasing tax credits to college students of up to $2,500 a year for five years, and making the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent;
• expanding the earned income tax credits for middle-class families;
• expanding paid sick leave to 7 days per year, as well as several other initiatives that put boost the middle class.
In all, the president proposed to create $175 billion in tax breaks to middle-income taxpayers, plus the $60 billion needed to finance two free years of tuition at community colleges across the nation for every high school graduate — a bold and imaginative measure.
He would finance the proposals by levying $320 billion in taxes over 10 years that would fall mainly on the wealthiest few and the nation’s largest financial services companies.
The Republican counter was to advocate for more tax cuts and less regulation, though they failed to explain how more tax cuts to the wealthy would reduce the wage gap, or how such a plan would lower the deficit.
But the party is not tone deaf. Many Republicans have picked up on the challenge to bolster middle-class Americans. Rather than taxing the rich and giving tax breaks to the middle class and poor, as President Obama suggested, Sen. Rand Raul, R-Ky., said he would propose cutting “everyone’s taxes, from the richest to the poorest, and we cut spending at the same time.” When asked how he would prevent harm to the millions of Americans receiving some form of federal assistance, he said he would “not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare.”
He wasn’t asked if he thought he could get cuts to corporate welfare passed by his Republican colleagues, nor how cutting taxes to all would not continue to increase the wealth gap.
The advantage President Obama enjoys is that the nation’s economy has been on the rebound for the past couple of years, despite the negative media ahead of the November election. Moreover, America’s economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999, and in comparison to our European allies, Japan and others, the nation has emerged from the Great Recession far stronger.
The president will also have the advantage of touting his successes over the past six years in contrast to the disastrous state-of-affairs he inherited from President Bush.
When he took office in November 2008, the nation was several months into the worst recession the country had seen in 75 years. That fall the country saw job losses as high as 900,000 each month, with job losses averaging over 650,000 for several consecutive months at the end of 2008 and into 2009. The national deficit soared to cover unemployment payments and to cope with two costly wars that were never funded under President Bush; the nation’s financial institutions were on the edge of collapse as were the nation’s automotive manufacturers. Home mortgages across the nation were forfeited and thousands had to declare bankruptcy. That was the legacy of tax cuts and lax financial regulation under President Bush and his Republican colleagues.
Today, in just six years, the financial industry is revived and surging; the nation’s automotive manufacturers are booming; new financial regulations have reduced the worst sins of the Bush era, and the economy has been adding an average of 250,000 jobs each month for the past couple of years. America’s military is out of Iraq and largely out of our war in Afghanistan, one of the longest-running conflicts in the nation’s history.
For all the criticism thrown the president’s way, he can legitimately say that the nation’s economy is growing, the deficits are shrinking, industry is bustling, and the nation’s energy sector is the strongest it’s been in decades. “We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” he said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come. 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?”
There are many problems to face, of course, but to be able to point to his successes — after the mess he inherited and despite a particularly partisan and counter-productive Congress — is proof that he set the nation on a better path and that “the shadow of crisis has passed.”  Looking to 2016, his is the message that embraces the American story. If he gets out of Washington and hits the road with the mission to simply frame the political conversation around his two themes, he has an opportunity to put these last two years to good use.
Angelo S. Lynn

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