President Obama delivered his second to last State of the Union address with an epic combination of sweet-talking and trash-talking, cajoling and trolling. He brought us the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, who got through some economic troubles with their family intact. “It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote the president, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” You knew what was coming: Yes, Americans, we too are “a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”
Or more specifically, we’re a strong, tight-knit family whose Republican relatives have been wrong on Russia and Iraq, clueless about climate change and can’t even get right with the pope on Cuba. When he commented, "I have no more campaigns to run,” and Republicans applauded, Obama shot back: “I know, because I’ve won both of them.”
My personal favorite Obama taunt came during his call for a minimum wage hike. “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. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Anyone who tuned in expecting a conciliatory lame duck president was disappointed.
Since almost all of the president’s SOTU proposals were available for mass consumption days before the address, the night’s big questions involved theater, much of which was provided by Obama himself. But it was fun to watch Republicans frown at so many ideas they once supported. While much of the media framed Obama’s plan as a radical break from his first six years, that’s silly. I’m happy with what the president outlined, but it’s essential to say that aside from his community college proposal, he’s using mostly old-fashioned GOP ideas, though they're DOA in this Congress.
He’s working through the tax code -- providing expanded child tax credits, child care and higher education tax credits and second earner credits -- not providing new social programs. Remember, that was the GOP response to the Great Society: Government is too big; why not let Americans keep more of their hard earned cash? Clearly Obama agrees. The plan is pro-family, pro-child, pro-work -- and most of it only goes to the middle class, not the poor (the new credits aren't refundable for low-income people who don't pay taxes). Specifically, it borrows tax proposals from Republicans like former Rep. Dave Camp and Paul Ryan and Sen. Mike Lee. It brings capital gains taxes back to the level of the GOP’s favorite president, Ronald Reagan.
You’re not hearing much of that from the media. Bill O'Reilly trashed it as Obama’s “Robin Hood” plan, but you can find “Robin Hood” headlines on CNN, Politico and The Hill as well. Another popular comparison was with the French economist who’s done the most to chart rising inequality, Thomas Piketty. Matt O’Brien in the Washington Post called it Obama’s “Piketty moment;” the New York Times found “shades of Piketty” in the plan; the Atlantic said the president “owes a tip of the cap” to Piketty.
A tip of the cap, maybe. But Piketty himself thinks the top marginal tax rate should be at least 80 percent. Obama doesn’t propose anything close to that. Nor does he suggest closing the carried interest loophole or imposing a Wall Street transaction tax, an idea backed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen and other House Democrats. The Bush tax cuts remain standing, for all but the top 2 percent. I don’t say any of this to criticize the president’s plans, but to chide the media for acting like they’re socialism.
But even if he doesn’t go as far as Piketty or most progressives want, there’s plenty in what Obama proposed that’s great, and targeted at reversing the massive accumulation of wealth for the top 1 percent (and particularly, the top .01 percent). It will stop folks like Mitt Romney from using IRAs as tax shelters. It will keep the same folks from passing along their stock portfolio to their children without paying capital gains taxes.
Maybe most important, he framed his proposals in keeping with the march of American progress that seemed to stop 40 years ago.
At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the internet – tools they needed to go as far as their effort will take them.
He put his community college proposal in that context, and he was right to do so.
There were things to quibble with for progressives. He pitched his new trade plans as protecting workers, when unions certainly don’t see it that way. He barely mentioned the national agitation over excessive police use of force. He acknowledged differences of opinion on abortion, but didn’t mention that the GOP’s first major action now that it controls Congress is passing a post-20-week abortion ban (which he has promised to veto).
But the president made clear he’s going to enjoy his fourth quarter. It took five Republicans to reply this time, and none of them came close.