WASHINGTON (AP) — Emboldened by a stronger economy and a series of recent policy initiatives, President Barack Obama on Tuesday night made clear that he is committed to cementing a liberal legacy and aimed to reframe the broader debate on what constitutes American success.
In his sixth State of the Union address, Obama celebrated many of the most ambitious, progressive policies he put in place shortly after taking office and called for more — making an unabashed pitch for expansive government action on the economy, scientific research, infrastructure, education and the environment.
In a shift from tradition, Obama’s address to a joint gathering 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.”
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.
Obama 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 GOP priorities.
Rather than striking a tone of compromise, he proposed $320 billion over the next decade in new taxes targeting wealthy individuals and big financial institutions to fund community college tuition and paid leave for working parents — an idea that has prompted derision from the Republican majority.
“We will not be limited by what will pass this Congress, because that would be a very boring two years,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview before the speech.
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 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.
“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 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 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.
Among those not watching from the gallery: Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who was this year’s “designated survivor” from the Cabinet, tapped to take over in case the unthinkable happened at the Capitol.
Obama appeared at ease throughout the address, ad-libbing 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.”
William Galston, a former Clinton administration official, said Obama seems to be working two parallel tracks — a more confrontational path setting the stage for national elections in 2016, and a more conciliatory one aimed at getting things done in 2015.
The latter has been less evident so far, but both sides say they see the potential for compromise on matters like trade, infrastructure and perhaps tax reform.
Said Galston: “The question for 2015 is whether the president and the Republican leaders will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Will they be able to seal off the areas of guaranteed confrontation from the areas of possible cooperation?”