State of the Union: Obama’s Robin Hood turn

Posted at 2:24 PM, Jan 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-20 14:24:26-05

President Barack Obama has less clout on Capitol Hill now than ever before. So with little to lose, he’s making a feisty pitch for economic populism.

With Republicans now in charge of both the House and Senate and alreadybattling him on immigration and the Keystone XL pipeline, there is precious little legislation — excepting perhaps trade and cybersecurity — that both the White House and Congress can agree on.

So while he’ll likely give lip service to the concept of cooperation, Obama isn’t expected to hone in much on those areas of mutual agreement during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

Instead, he’ll play up the parties’ philosophical differences in the biggest way possible.

Emboldened by an approval rating that a Washington Post/ABC News pollfound had hit 50% for the first time in nearly two years, and fresh off major unilateral actions to forestall deportations, ease tensions with Cuba, restrict environmentally damaging emissions, Obama is taking a more direct approach than he had when his fellow Democrats’ success at the polls was tied to his performance.

If his proposals pitched on Tuesday night never become law, they could still influence the 2016 race to replace him in the Oval Office and help define his legacy on the left, where stagnant wages have been a drag on Obama’s story of economic recovery.

“Let me give you the theme of the speech in three words: Middle class economics,” top White House aide Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Taking top billing will be the Robin Hood-style tax-and-spend plan Obama has rolled out in recent days.

The benefits would largely go to students and young families: The child care tax credit would triple to $3,000; households in which both spouses work could qualify for a new $500 credit; and college students and those repaying loans could get breaks thanks to Obama’s plan to make two-year community college degrees free.

Footing the bill are tax hikes on the rich: a total of $320 billion over 10 years by targeting wealthy individuals and banks. Paying most of the price would be couples earning more than $500,000, who would see their capital gains rate jump from 23.8% to 28%. More inherited assets would be subject to capital gains taxes and top financial firms would face new fees.

The proposal allows Obama to tout the country’s economic progress in recent years, namely the unemployment dropping from 10% in 2009 to the current 5.6%. But it also grants him the opportunity to confront a key weakness in that rising tide: benefits are mostly flowing to those who are already wealthy.

The economic populist message could appeal to liberals, and it could even put Republicans considering 2016 bids for the White House in a tough spot.

But GOP congressional leaders say Obama’s proposal, an opening offer in what could be a long-term negotiation over comprehensive tax reform, isn’t serious — and that he should have learned his lesson after Democrats lost control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections.

“This can be a day he promotes serious, realistic reforms that focus on economic growth and don’t just spend more money we don’t have. We’re eager for him to do so,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a recent statement.

In addition to the economic fare, a host of security-related issues — from combating ISIS to improving cybersecurity — are likely to come up as well and could well surprise.

Obama could ask Congress to officially authorize the use of force in Iraq and Syria. He could push for legislation that enables government and businesses to share more information to better thwart online attacks. And he could urge lawmakers to delay their plans to impose new sanctions on Iran as his administration tries to work out a deal to end the country’s nuclear program.

Though liberals are likely to agree with much of what Obama pitches, the left is fretting over what Obama might say about trade, perhaps the ripest item for agreement between the President and the new Congress.

Obama wants to be able to fast-track massive new deals with Pacific Rim countries and the European Union through Congress, and Republican leaders agree that he needs that authority to convince foreign leaders to sign on.

He gave the issue cursory mention in 2014 but — needing olive branches to extend to conservatives and with an eye on what those trade deals could mean for his own legacy — Obama could make a bigger push this year.

The speech’s most interesting theater, though, could be over Cuba.

Just weeks after Obama took the biggest steps in decades to thaw the economic and diplomatic freeze with the small island country, he’s likely to prod Congress to help him carry out plans to set up an embassy in Havana. And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the most vocal opponents of the move, has planned his own jab to Obama on that front.

While Obama plans to use the first lady’s guest box to highlight the most visible face of his Cuba move, Rubio — who feels Obama’s action rewards a Castro regime that fails to live up to American human rights standards — is also putting the spotlight on a guest to reinforce his position.

Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor who was imprisoned in Cuba for five years before Obama struck the deal that secured his release in December, is among the about two dozen guests joining first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, and top White House aide Valerie Jarrett in the first lady’s box for the speech.

Those guests — many selected after they wrote letters to Obama last year — offer Obama opportunities to highlight his initiatives on immigration, health care, the minimum wage and more.

Rubio, meanwhile, invited Cuban activist Rosa María Payá to come as his guest. She’s the daughter of Oswaldo Payá, a pro-democracy activist who was killed in a 2012 crash in which the car’s driver has said it was deliberately targeted by Cuban government officials.

“I hope Rosa María Payá’s presence on Tuesday night will at least remind him that her father’s murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them,” Rubio said.