WASHINGTON (AP) —Refusing to bend to the new Republican Congress, President Barack Obama unveiled Tuesday night an ambitious State of the Union agenda steeped in Democratic priorities, including tax increases on the wealthy, education and child care help for the middle class and a torrent of veto threats for the GOP’s own plans.
In a shift from tradition, Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress was less a laundry list of new proposals and more an attempt to sell a story of a national economy emerging from the “shadow of crisis.” He appealed for “better politics” in Washington and pledged to work with Republicans, but he showed few signs of curtailing or tweaking his own plans to meet the GOP’s platform.
Instead, the president vowed to use his veto pen to strike down the Republican leadership’s efforts to dismantle his signature accomplishments, including his health care and financial reform laws.
“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,” Obama said in his hour-long address. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.”
The president sought out more common ground on foreign policy, pledging to work with Congress on a new authorization for military action against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, as well as legislation to guard against cyberattacks. In a rare move away from his own party, Obama also renewed his call for fast-tracking free trade agreements with Asia and Europe, generating more applause from pro-trade Republicans than skeptical Democrats.
Obama’s address marked the first time in his presidency that he stood before a Republican-controlled Congress. Yet the shift in the political landscape has also been accompanied by a burst of economic growth and hiring, as well as a slight increase in Obama’s once-sagging approval ratings – leaving the White House to see little incentive in acquiescing to Republicans.
After ticking through signs of the rising economy, the president turned toward Republicans sitting in the chamber and said with a wink, “This is good news, people.”
The centerpiece of Obama’s economic proposals marked a shift away from the focus on austerity and deficit reduction that has dominated his fiscal fights with Republicans. In a direct challenge to GOP economic ideology, Obama called for increasing the capital gains rate on couples making more than $500,000 annually, to 28 percent.
The president’s tax plan would also require estates to pay capital gains taxes on securities at the time they’re inherited and slap a fee on the roughly 100 U.S. financial firms with assets of more than $50 billion.
Much of the $320 billion in new taxes and fees would be used for measures aimed at helping the middle class, including a $500 tax credit for some families with two spouses working, expansion of the child care tax credit and a $60 billion program to make community college free. He also has called for expanding paid leave for workers and moved on his own to lower a mortgage insurance premium rate that could attract new homebuyers.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama asked. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”
The president’s proposals seemed more about giving his party a platform in the 2016 election than outlining a realistic legislative agenda. Even before the president’s address, Republicans were balking at his proposals and painting a far less rosy picture of the economy.
“We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs. We see the hurt caused by canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who delivered the Republican response.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama’s economic initiatives weren’t just “the wrong policies, they’re the wrong priorities: growing Washington’s bureaucracy instead of America’s economy.”
With an eye on a swirl of foreign policy challenges, Obama defended his decision to return to military action in Iraq and also authorize airstrikes in Syria. He said Congress could “show the world that we are united in this mission” by passing a new resolution formally authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State group.
As the U.S. eyes a March deadline for a framework agreement with Iran on its disputed nuclear program, the president vowed to veto any effort by Congress to pass new sanctions legislation. Such a step, he said, “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
The president also heralded his unilateral move last month to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half-century of animosity, and he urged lawmakers to follow his lead by lifting the economic embargo on the communist island. Yet the guest boxes in the House chamber underscored the sensitive politics that hang over efforts to overhaul the long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Among the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama was Alan Gross, the American man who spent five years in a Cuban prison and was released as part of the deal to end the freeze between Washington and Havana. In a nod to the concerns of Cuban dissidents and pro-democracy advocates, House Speaker John Boehner’s guest was Jorge Luis García Pérez, who spent 17 years in a Cuban prison. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio brought Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, whose father was a well-known Cuban dissident who was killed in a car accident that his family believes was suspicious.
Obama appeared at ease throughout the address, adlibbing at times and responding to the audience reaction. As he neared the end of his speech, he declared, “I have no more campaigns to run.” As Republicans erupted in laughter, Obama retorted, “I know, because I won both of them.”
Iowa Sen. Ernst Promises GOP Focus On Americans’ Concerns
The new Republican Congress understands Americans’ suffering from the economy, health care system and Washington gridlock and will steer the country away from President Barack Obama’s failed policies, the newly minted senator delivering her party’s official response to the State of Union address promised Tuesday.
Mixing calls for bipartisanship with a flexing of GOP muscle, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, called on Obama to cooperate with Republicans to simplify the tax code by lowering rates and eliminating unspecified loopholes and to ease trade barriers with Europe and Asia. She also listed a parade of looming clashes with the president, including GOP efforts to force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, balance the budget without raising taxes and restrict abortions.
“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” Ernst said, referring to the Obama health care overhaul that Republicans loathe. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”
Ernst’s speech marked her party’s first State of the Union response under Obama in which the GOP has held House and Senate majorities. It came as Republicans hope to expand their appeal among women and minorities ahead of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
“We heard the message you sent in November, loud and clear,” she said in remarks lasting 9½ minutes and delivered mostly with a smile. “And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”
Ernst, 44, sprinkled her policy prescriptions with a personal touch, recounting her youth on her family’s farm in Red Oak, Iowa. She described plowing fields, working mornings at a Hardees restaurant and wearing plastic bread bags over her only pair of good shoes on rainy school days.
Tuesday’s speeches came as the economy has been adding juice, with economic growth accelerating and unemployment falling. In his remarks, Obama said it was time to “turn the page” on years of war and economic weakness and turn to investments that would strengthen the country.
Ernst, a fresh face on the national political scene, has been in the Senate for all of two weeks. Her November election victory helped give Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.
The conservative Ernst rocketed to prominence in Republican circles last year, when the little-known state senator and Iraq war veteran won the GOP primary and captured a Senate seat that retiring Democrat Tom Harkin had held for three decades.
Ernst gained attention for a campaign ad in which she spoke of her farm experience castrating pigs and vowed to use that attitude against Washington’s big spenders, saying, “Let’s make them squeal.” She has advocated the abolition of the IRS and Environmental Protection Agency, backed a state law supporting personhood for fetuses and spoken of using her gun to defend herself against any government attempts to restrict her rights.
Tuesday, Ernst cited the GOP’s dispute with Obama over forcing construction of the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. With support from some Democrats, Republicans call the project a job creator while the White House has threatened a veto because of potential environmental damage.
“President Obama will soon have a decision to make: Will he sign the bill or block good American jobs?” she said.
Ernst also said “our hearts go out” to victims of terrorism in France and elsewhere, and called on Obama to craft a comprehensive anti-terrorism plan.
While Obama spoke, the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pushed out more than a dozen emails critiquing his remarks. Using the acronyn for “State of the Union,” the emails carried headlines such as “SOTU FACT: Obamacare Is Slashing Hours & Wages, & Destroying Jobs.”
Guests Drawing The Partisan Spotlight At State Of The Union
To see the other stars of the State of the Union Tuesday night, you had to look up — way up, to the visitors’ gallery circling the room above President Barack Obama’s head.
Lawmakers, no longer content to be a formal — and sometimes hostile — backdrop to the president’s big speech, have found a way to grab more attention by loading the House gallery with guests chosen to embody various political points.
Presidents, of course, have been using their guests this way since Ronald Reagan.
But this year’s noticeable increase in lawmakers embracing the tactic added to the partisan mood surrounding Obama’s first State of the Union address to a Congress where Republicans control both houses.
Mixed among the family members and hometown heroes lined up to go through metal detectors Tuesday night, holding golden-edged tickets with their assigned seats, were visitors chosen to make a point about immigration law, Cuba policy or voting rights.
The White House’s guests pointedly included Ana Zamora of Dallas, a college student brought to the U.S. illegally as a child who can stay under Obama’s executive actions on deportation — an Obama policy congressional Republicans are trying to overturn. That prompted Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to fire off a tweet criticizing Obama for “inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor” with first lady Michelle Obama.
But, as usual on State of the Union night, some moments transcended partisanship.
Republicans and Democrats alike rose to applaud when Obama said he stood united with the people of Paris after terrorist attacks there. More than two-dozen lawmakers held up pencils symbolizing free speech, in sympathy with the victims of the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
At other moments, applause was noticeably one-sided, with Democrats jumping to their feet while Republicans sat stonily. That lead Obama to quip, after bragging about economic progress, “This is good news, people.”
The entire chamber applauded Alan Gross, an American who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years and released last month as Obama announced that he was restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Inviting Gross to sit behind the first lady helped Obama showcase the historic move. Republicans countered by bringing Cuban democracy activists bitterly opposed to lifting Cold War-era isolation of Cuba.
“Engagement with (President Raul) Castro only strengthens the Castro regime and weakens Cuba morally,” one of those guests, Jorge Luis Perez, known as “Antunez,” told reporters before the speech. Perez, who was jailed for 17 years in Cuba, was a guest of House Speaker John Boehner.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., invited an activist who believes her father, Oswaldo Paya, was killed in a rigged car accident by Cuban government officials because of his years of gathering signatures on a petition seeking free elections.
Rubio said he hoped Rosa Maria Paya’s presence in the gallery would remind Obama that “her father’s murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them.”
Gross, who was imprisoned while working in Cuba as a government subcontractor, and his wife, Judy, were among 22 guests invited by the Obamas.
Others include astronaut Scott Kelly of Houston, who’s going back to space in March. Kelly, the twin of retired astronaut Mark Kelly, received a bipartisan standing ovation.
Then there’s 13-year-old Malik Bryant of Chicago. He came to Obama’s attention after writing a letter to Santa through a charity that gets Christmas gifts for students in poor and violent neighborhoods. Bryant’s request: “I just wanna be safe.”
Democratic lawmakers’ guests included a 103-year-old voting rights activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten while marching outside Selma, Alabama, in 1965. She was invited by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., brought Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who has raised awareness about sexual assault by carrying a mattress around campus.
(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)