Despite making frequent calls for bipartisanship, President Obama delivered a State of the Union address that was clearly, and unsurprisingly, a call to arms in favor of Democratic priorities.
After noting improved economic numbers during his time in office, Obama frequently invoked the importance of strong government intervention in the marketplace, calling for higher spending on child care and medical research, expanded education and job training programs and an increased minimum wage.
“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” the president said.
Equally unsurprisingly, Republicans reacted tepidly at best to most of what Obama had to say. Some GOP members of Congress barely seemed interested enough at times to look up from their phones.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in 2012 and a potential GOP candidate for president next year, took to Facebook to call the speech a “missed opportunity.”
“He ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favors smaller government and lower taxes,” Romney posted.
In some instances, Obama tacitly conceded defeat. He recalled mourning with survivors and families of the victims of mass shootings such as Tucson and Newtown, Conn., but made no mention of his one-time priority of enacting gun-control legislation.
But Obama plumped for several other ideas. He noted the support paid sick leave proposals won in a few jurisdictions at the ballot box last fall and called on Congress to send him a bill mandating seven paid days for workers per year. The White House intends to back up this proposal with $2 billion for states.
“The president is going to follow the states’ lead + help them adopt paid sick leave laws of their own,” tweeted Jerry Abramson, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs.
Some of Obama’s proposals were considered dead even prior to their official arrival in this speech. His plan to help middle-class families with tax breaks, to be paid for by increased bank fees and capital gains and inheritance taxes, has drawn hostile reactions from congressional Republicans.
Obama described lowering the cost of community college to “zero” (with 75 percent of the resulting expense falling on federal shoulders and 25 percent on states) as the natural outgrowth of providing free high school. He noted that model community college programs are already in place in Tennessee and Chicago -- jurisdictions whose respective Republican and Democratic leadership he underscored.
Yet his proposal -- unveiled like his tax plan ahead of his address to Congress -- hasn’t gained noticeable traction on Capitol Hill.
Obama made only passing reference to the Affordable Care Act, noting that 10 million previously uninsured Americans have obtained coverage in the past year. He announced plans for a Precision Medicine Initiative that would use genetic treatments to help combat diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
The president said that the economy demands infrastructure improvements. He went into no detail, but in recent days the White House has said its upcoming budget will call for creation of a new class of municipal bonds known as Qualified Public Infrastructure Bonds designed to spur private investment in roads, bridges and other capital projects.
As he checked off a long list of topics -- improving the criminal justice system, combating climate change, opening up relations with Cuba -- Obama at times mentioned bipartisan cooperation but at several points threatened to use his veto pen if the GOP made good on plans to impose sanctions on Iran, pass a punitive immigration bill or undo the banking regulations he achieved during his first term.
Obama tweaked Republicans repeatedly, calling at one point for “laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions.” He referred to the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery and passage of the Voting Rights Act in arguing that “surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred” and calling on Democrats and Republicans “to make voting easier for every single American.”
The two parties have parted ways on voting issues in recent years, with GOP-led states enacting voter ID requirements and Democrats charging Republicans with attempting to suppress votes.
The president’s attempt to end on a plea for politicians to honor America’s shared values also inadvertently turned partisan. Obama noted that he had “no more campaigns to run” -- a remark meant to suggest partisan victory was no longer his concern.
But when his comment drew some applause from the GOP side of the aisle, Obama retorted, “I know, ‘cause I won both of them.”
Rehearsing lines from the 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech that first put him on the national map, Obama said again there are no red states or blue states, just the United States.
Perhaps in a renewed effort to make that point, Obama will next take his economic proposals on the road to Kansas and Idaho.