WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 20: U.S. President Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
By Julie Pace, AP White House Correspondent
Posted: 01/20/15, 7:28 PM PST | Updated: 28 secs ago
WASHINGTON >> Refusing to bend to the new Republican Congress, President Barack Obama unveiled Tuesday night an ambitious State of the Union agenda steeped in Democratic priorities, including tax increases on the wealthy, education and child care help for the middle class and a torrent of veto threats for the GOP’s own plans.
In a shift from tradition, Obama’s address to a joint session 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.” He 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 the GOP’s platform.
Instead, the president vowed to use his veto pen to strike down the Republican leadership’s efforts to dismantle his signature accomplishments, including his health care and financial reform laws.
“We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” Obama said in his hour-long address. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.”
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 group 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.
The president’s tax plan would also require estates to pay capital gains taxes on securities at the time they’re inherited and slap a fee on the roughly 100 U.S. financial firms with assets of more than $50 billion.
Much of the $320 billion in new taxes and fees would be used for measures aimed at helping the middle class, including a $500 tax credit for some families with two spouses working, expansion of the child care tax credit and a $60 billion program to make community college free. He also has called for expanding paid leave for workers and moved on his own to lower a mortgage insurance premium rate that could attract new homebuyers.
“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’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.
“We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs. We see the hurt caused by canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who delivered the Republican response.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama’s economic initiatives weren’t just “the wrong policies, they’re the wrong priorities: growing Washington’s bureaucracy instead of America’s economy.”
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