WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Obama will address the nation in his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday night, laying out a series of proposals aimed at helping ordinary Americans who feel like the country’s economic gains have left them behind.
During the day, Republicans geared up to rebuke it, while the White House pointed to their economic successes as proof of their agenda.
“What I hope for tonight is that he presents some positive, bipartisan ideas of his own that can pass the Congress Americans just voted for,” the newly minted Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor, a nod to the control his party holds over the president’s ambitions. “If the president is ready to ‘play offense,’ then we urge him to join the new Congress in playing offense on behalf of the American people.”
McConnell’s pre-rebuttal previews the formal response Iowa’s new Sen. Joni Ernst will give tonight, which promises to be just as combative as the junior senator’s campaign promise to “make ‘em squeal.” Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 candidate Sen. Rand Paul announced that he’d release his own rebuttal speech on YouTube, as well, at around 10 p.m. ET.
White House surrogates, however, shrugged it off. “The people’s sentiment is everything,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on “Andrea Mitchell Reports” Tuesday.
The numbers are on Obama’s side, too: unemployment is at its lowest point since the 2008 crash, the Dow Jones average has more than doubled, consumer confidence has doubled, the GDP has seen a complete turnaround, the deficit has been curbed, and low gas prices are expected to help grow consumer spending. More Americans are satisfied with the economy than at any point in the past 10 years and the president’s job approval is on the rise, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll.
Asked why the president planned to propose so many proposals that “are never going to fly” with the GOP, White House Special Adviser Valerie Jarrett said “well, they fly with the American people.”
More specifically, Obama is determined to cast himself and his party as defenders of the middle class.
“We know that when the middle class is strong, our economy historically just does better. Our economy grows from the middle out and not from the top down,” Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said on Tuesday, when asked about Obama’s new economic proposals. “That’s what the president’s message is about.”Obama is expected to outline a series of big goals to hike taxes on the rich to fund free community college for qualified students and middle-class tax cuts. The tax plan would raise an estimated $320 billion of new revenue over the next 10 years by raising the capital gains and dividend tax rate to 28% for the wealthy, closing a tax loophole on inherited money, and imposing a new tax on big banks, among other changes. That money would help pay for expanded tax credits for working couples, retirement, college tuition, and child care, as well as his the $60 billion community college program. “Now that we have sort of put this crisis behind us, we can turn the page and actually have more freedom to be focusing on the kinds of policies that are going to benefit middle class families,” Earnest added.
But the Obama administration’s big plans show little promise of progressing in the current political environment: A polarized, combative Republican majority was just sworn into both chambers of the legislature. The GOP has continued to reject raising tax rates — even if they pay for other tax exemptions — and has already come out strongly against the president’s community college plan.
“The president has an opportunity to work with the House and the Senate, and the proposal tonight doesn’t sound like he’s interested in that,” Sen. Cory Gardner told msnbc. “If you look at the burdens he’s putting on American job creators, it is directly hurting the middle class and their ability to find the kind of work they need to in this country.” Earlier on the Senate floor, McConnell similarly dismissed Obama’s plan as “more tired tax hikes” that would simply “spend more money we don’t have.”
Leading Senate Democrats demurred when asked whether they supported President Obama’s plan, saying they were waiting to look at the specifics. But Sen. Ron Wyden, the leading Senate Democrat on tax reform, told msnbc it was a positive step.
“Any time you’re talking about lightening the tax burden on the middle class, I believe that’s constructive,” said Wyden, who’s leading a bipartisan effort to overhaul the entire tax code. “What we’ve seen until recently, is that most of the discussion seems to go off in one area or another, but the focus on the middle class has gotten the short shrift. That’s changing.”
The Democrats’ renewed embrace of the middle-class marks a shift from the party’s focus on the poor and unemployed as the economy has improved. As outside advocates have pointed out, the campaign to raise the minimum wage is neither enough to improve stagnant wages for most Americans, nor enough to convince voters to back Democrats in key swing states, as the 2014 elections revealed.
In the hours before his speech, Congressional Democrats have been trying to drive home the same message on other issues as well. Together with Sens. Dick Durbin and Jack Reed, Rep. Sander Levin introduced a bill to restrict corporate tax “inversions” that allow multinationals to lower their tax burden by relocating their headquarters overseas. Levin said both his corporate tax proposal and Obama’s plan targeting individuals sought to make the tax code fairer by eliminating loopholes that unfairly advantage the wealthy.
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“What the middle class wants us to do is to pay their fair share is to close loopholes—the inversion loophole is a major one,” said Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
“What the president is saying is especially this phenomenon of having major economic growth and 35 years or more of income stagnation for middle class families. You have to address that paradox. And part of addressing the paradox is addressing a loophole like this,” he added after the press conference in an interview with MSNBC.
Sen. Chuck Schumer—who’s previously broken with his party on higher taxes on the wealthy—tentatively praised Obama’s tax plan as a boon for the middle class.
“We are for average families, for middle class jobs and middle class incomes going up. I haven’t seen the specific details of the president’s plan, but the overall outline goes right in that direction, and that’s the direction it has to go,” Schumer said.