The annual State of the Union address that President Obama will deliver tonight before the Republican-controlled Congress serves many functions. It provides the president with a chance to boast upon progress made, and to highlight next steps. It frames, particularly with this obstructionist Congress, upcoming battles. And with the presidential election of 2016 already begun, it gives the president a chance to define themes and contrasts that the emerging challengers must respond to.
Obama has already revealed, in the pre-speech rollout of message and proposals, that this speech will pick up the populist themes of his 2012 campaign, calling on Congress to pass progressive tax reforms to provide concrete benefits to working families – child care credits, college affordability, aid in savings for retirement, investment in education. The president will also continue to call for lifting the floor under low-wage workers – expanding tax credits, lifting the minimum wage, providing guaranteed paid sick days. These kitchen-table concerns – and the Republicans' reaction to them – will frame much of the debate over the next months leading into the 2016 election.
Here is a brief guide for what to look for in the speech:
1. The Economy: Declare Victory or Sound the Charge?
The president will stand before the Congress with his popularity rebounding, public confidence rising, the economy growing, unemployment down, deficits down, inflation low, and stock markets near record heights, The temptation to declare victory – and to scorn those who stood in the way and those who predicted doom – will be inescapable.
But amid the chest beating, watch how and whether the president sounds the charge for meeting the fundamental challenge: making this economy work for working people. Does he suggest we’re on the right path, and a rising tide will lift all boats? Does he suggest that a few strategic reforms – minimum wage, investment in education, making college more affordable – will suffice? Or does he sound the trumpet for moving to create a new foundation for the economy, for taking on the rules that have been rigged to favor the few.
The key test here is whether hard-pressed families get a sense that the president understands the troubles they have in an economy that works only for the few and not the many.
2. New Foundation for the Economy or Embrace of the Old?
The recovery has largely brought back the old economy: extreme inequality, dangerously concentrated big banks, declining or stagnant wages, large trade deficits, a dangerous public investment deficit, a corrupted systems of taxes and subsidies and more.
The president began his administration by pledging to build a new, more sustainable foundation for widely shared prosperity. In recent speeches, however, he’s begun to claim that new foundation is already in place. His choice tonight will show whether the president is prepared to wage a battle for major reform going into 2016, or seek to sell the progress already made. The yardsticks here are clear:
Tax and spend. The president will make the case for progressive tax reforms to pay largely for targeted tax benefits for working families. But any new foundation must start with rebuilding America – a massive public investment in the aging and weakened public sinews of our economy – infrastructure, schools, research and development, public transport, parks and public spaces. The Republican congress won’t pass much of this – but the key question is whether the president gears up to battle for it.
Balanced trade and fair taxes. A new foundation requires overturning the corporate trade and tax policies that encourage companies to ship jobs and report profits abroad, avoiding taxes, sapping our manufacturing base and putting pressure on wages at home. The president seems committed to doubling down on the failed policies of the past: pushing for fast-track trade authority to help negotiate major treaties with Asian and European allies. Here he will seek to enlist Republican majorities against the vast majority of his own party in Congress, with the aid of a mobilized corporate lobby. Bipartisan cooperation with this Republican leadership will be a good measure of the power of the corporate and bank lobbies.
New energy and climate change. The president has pushed, largely on his own initiative, to make progress on sustainable energy, most recently in the agreement struck with China last year. This year, the administration will issue tough standards on carbon emissions from coal plants. At a time of plummeting oil prices, these will have big effect. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calls this a war on “coal country.” The president could use the State of the Union to lay out a big reconstruction program for coal country, driving the case that meeting the challenge of climate change can be a source of jobs and growth. Making that case clearly in this speech will help set up the debate that will inevitably grow over the next months and years.
3. Incomes Policy: Lifting the Floor or Raising the Roof?
The president is clearly committed to measures designed to lift the floor under low-wage workers – raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing sick days, providing child care aid for two-income families, expanding child credits and earned income tax credits, guaranteeing health care, ensuring pay equity, helping with college affordability and more. He’s used his pen to drive this with federal workers.
But to make certain that workers share in the profits and productivity that they help to generate, other steps are essential: empowering workers to bargain collectively at the workplace and curbing our perverse CEO compensation policies that give corporate executives multimillion-dollar incentives to plunder their own companies. Will the president push for reform of CEO pay? Will he demand that the Securities and Exchange Commission finally force companies to publish the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay? Will he use his pen to give “good jobs” employers – those who allow their workers to organize and provide a living wage – preferences in government contracting?
4. Cleaning Out the Stables
Candidates for president are now told they must raise $1 billion to be competitive. The money primary – featuring politicians lining up to show a little leg to deep-pocket donors – has already begun. Voters are cynical about any promises made by politicians because they believe – accurately – that money talks in Washington, and their politicians represent the interests of their donors, not their voters.
Will the president make political reform a centerpiece of his agenda – reissuing the call to overturn Citizens United, pledging to crack down on lobbies and close the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington? It is time to revive what once was a hallmark theme for this president.
5. We Can’t Breathe
The president’s speech comes one day after the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while demonstrators are still on the streets in cities across the country protesting our racially biased system of justice. With conservatives goading the police to counterattack, the debate over reform grows ever more heated.
Will the president use his bully pulpit to speak clearly about the shackles this unjust system puts upon young people of color and call for reform at all levels of government? Silence on this question at this time will only reinforce the voices of division.
6. America Entangled: Insecurity and the War on Terror
President Obama was elected in significant degree because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He set out to extract America from Iraq and bring the longest war of our history to an end in Afghanistan. He argued that, for our own security, the war on terror must end, as all wars must eventually end.
Yet he finds himself moving troops back into Iraq, mired in the war against ISIS, dropping bombs from drones in ever more nations. He came to office arguing that we need not sacrifice our liberties to protect our security, but has expanded the assertion of presidential prerogative over national security – waging war, surveilling, detaining, and even killing suspects on his own order, enforcing secrecy laws to the point of eroding freedom of the press.
Given the recent horrors in France, will the president revive his effort to bring the war on terror under control? Will he reassert the need to respect the Constitution and our liberties even while we seek to secure our safety? Will he revive his pledge to close Guantanamo prison, while opening new relations with Cuba and the nations of this hemisphere? Will he make the case that America should not go in search of monsters abroad, but instead should focus on rebuilding democracy and shared prosperity here at home, providing an example to the world, not a global cop on the beat?
7. Setting the Bar for 2016
The president’s program is pretty much dead on arrival in this Congress. And that which does go forward – perhaps fast-track trade authority, corporate tax reform, a bargain over budgets – is likely to make things worse rather than better.
So the president’s speech begins a political argument – an argument about what direction the country should take. He must help Americans see the choices clearly. He can play a major role in framing the debate in the next election, and in setting a bar for reforms that Democratic candidates will have to hurdle. In this moment, it is time for the president to speak boldly, to provide vision, to help Americans understand just what is at stake. This is Obama’s strength; it is time for him to exercise it.