Tuesday night, for the first time in his presidency, President Barack Obama delivered his state of the union address to a GOP-controlled Congress. It was a speech in which Obama went back to Democratic basics -- what Obama called "middle-class economics" -- and ended with a sweeping call to a "better politics," one "where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears."
Click here to read the prepared text of the president's remarks.
The president's policy recommendations came as no surprise since the administration had been signaling them for weeks ahead of the speech. They centered on "middle-class economics," which the president said "means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change." His speech went on to detail the policies that would help secure that vision. They included:
Free community college: Obama's proposal, “America’s College Promise,” is supposed to help students “earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree and earn skills needed in the workforce at no cost,” according to a fact sheet released by the White House. Obama sees expanding educational opportunity as a key to expanding economic opportunity. Locally, community college leaders responded positively to Obama's proposal.
Paid family and sick leave: The New York Times reports that Obama will ask for "a bill that would allow workers across the United States to earn up to seven paid sick days a year and would create a $2 billion incentive fund to help states pay for family leave programs." While many Americans are entitled to family leave, that leave is currently unpaid.
Changes in the tax code: According to Politico, the proposal "would raise taxes on capital gains and close various breaks for the wealthy in order to finance more generous education, family and retirement benefits for those further down the income ladder." Specifically, the president would increase the capital gains tax, tax credits for the middle and working class and certain bank taxes, among other things.
Obama also devoted a large part of his speech to international issues and foreign affairs:
Normalizing relations with Cuba: "In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo."
Negotiating an end to Iran's nuclear program: Obama warned that new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails....That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress."
The danger of climate change: Obama emphasized that climate change is a fact: "The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate." But climate change isn't just an environmental issue, he said. "The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it."
Usually, presidents try to build suspense about their state of the union address — instead of previewing its elements in advance. CBS News observes that the president "is speaking to the American people as much as Congress. ... Appealing to the public over Congress may be imperative if the White House wants to get anything done this year, now that the Republican Party has taken over both chambers of the legislative branch."
The speech also comes at a time when the president's popularity has been increasing. As Chuck Todd of NBC News writes, "It's a reminder what a truly improving economy can do — boost a president's job ratings, give him more political capital, and make the overall political environment more hospitable to his party heading into the next election."
The Republican response
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, the newly elected Republican senator from Iowa, was tapped to give the official Republican response.
Here's a link to her prepared remarks.
Ernst didn't address the specifics of what Obama said or proposed. Instead she said she wanted to use the time "to have a conversation about the new Republican Congress you just elected, and how we plan to make Washington focus on your concerns again."
When it comes to jobs, Ernst singled out the Keystone pipeline for potentially creating "thousands of jobs," and she called on Obama to sign it. “President Obama will soon have a decision to make: will he sign the (Keystone) bill, or block good American jobs?"
While Ernst mentioned trade and taxes as areas where the Republicans might find common cause with the president, her speech also listed GOP priorities at odds with the president's: correcting "executive overreach," repealing Obamacare, limiting abortion.
Perhaps because of her military background, Ernst reiterated several times the Republican commitment -- and her commitment -- to America's military and veterans.
More than once, Ernst stressed that the Republican Congress would be a working one, a serious one.
"You don’t need to come from wealth or privilege to make a difference. You just need the freedom to dream big, and a whole lot of hard work. The new Republican Congress you elected is working to make Washington understand that too. And with a little cooperation from the president, we can get Washington working again."