By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on Americans to “turn the page” in a State of the Union address Tuesday night that laid out a sprawling, post-recession domestic agenda aimed at leveling the economic playing field — and revitalizing his presidency in what he dubs its “last quarter.”
“America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong,” Obama said early in his address.
Obama’s speech included a proposal for free community college, expanded child care tax credits, a push for paid leave and a proposed tax increase on the wealthy to pay for programs the White House argues will help a battered middle class participate in the economic turnaround.
Obama spoke of “a breakthrough year for America,” a declaration of a new day that was a first for a president who has spent all of his time in office either slogging through grim economic news or pleading for patience for better times ahead.
His aim is to create a stark contrast to his political opponents, who in their rebuttal to Obama’s remarks will paint Americans as still rattled from the aftershocks of the Great Recession. Sen. Joni Ernst, a freshman Republican from Iowa, squarely blamed the president’s policies, including his landmark health care law.
“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,” she was to say in the Republican response, according to excerpts released in advance. “Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare. It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”
Obama looked out on a House chamber filled with the first entirely GOP-controlled Congress in a decade and more Republican opponents than at any point in his time in office. Still, the president did not signal that he would come to the podium bearing offers of compromise and political centrism.
Buoyed by rising public approval and an improving economy, Obama is eager to use the moment to show the public — and Washington — he won’t go quietly, White House aides suggested.
He was expected to talk of policies aimed at challenging Republicans and trying to shape the debate for the final two years of his term, and likely the 2016 presidential race threatening to soon overshadow him.
White House advisers said he planned to propose a tax package that raises $320 billion in new revenue over a decade. It would increase the capital gains and dividends tax to 28 percent, close what the White House calls the “trust fund loophole” and impose a new fee on large financial firms.
The money would pay for a $60 billion plan that offers two years of free community college to some students. It would expand higher education tax credits, the child care tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits lower-income workers.
White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer, previewing the plan, described it as setting up a showdown between “middle-class economics” and “trickle-down economics” to “see if we can come to an agreement.”
After a year of being whipsawed by foreign crises, Obama was to defend his policies overseas as “a smarter kind of American leadership.”
“We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition-building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents,” he was to say later in the speech, according to excerpts released in advance by the White House. “That’s exactly what we’re doing right now — and around the globe, it is making a difference.”
The president will cast the U.S.-led coalition battling extremists in Iraq and Syria as strong, and urge patience.
“This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed,” he will say, adding that he would work with Congress to rewrite the law for use of force that has authorized the air campaign already underway.
Even as Republicans in Congress refuse to allow the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons, Obama planned to affirm his belief that the U.S. should go beyond its dramatic reduction in the number of detainees at the controversial prison and close it altogether, as he promised he would do shortly after taking office in 2009.
Obama was to point to other areas of potential cooperation with Republicans — trade, cybersecurity legislation and Cuba policy top the list. The president will tout his plans to open up U.S. policy toward Cuba, urging Congress to end the half-century-old embargo. Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker freed in conjunction with the new policy, was invited to attend the speech with first lady Michelle Obama.
Still, most political observers saw Obama’s proposals as more of a search for political high ground than for common ground with his newly empowered GOP opponents.
Obama was expected to pick up on last year’s theme of executive action and vow to work around Congress when necessary. Officials said he intends to try to build on his recent success in getting China to commit publicly to cutting carbon emissions.
He will vow again to veto any bills further sanctioning Iran that arrive on his desk while international negotiators are still engaged in talks to halt the country’s military nuclear program, the officials said.
Some Republicans answered the White House’s symbolism with their own during the annual Washington ritual. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida invited Cuban activist Rosa Maria Paya to the speech. Paya’s father promoted democracy in Cuba and was killed in a 2012 automobile accident that some have suggested was orchestrated by Cuban officials. Rubio said he hoped her presence reminded Obama of the regime’s abuses as high-level diplomatic talks get underway in Havana.
Also invited to attend with the first lady was to be Ana Zamora, an immigrant living in Dallas who qualified under the president’s 2012 deferred deportation program for Dreamers. Her parents are potentially eligible for the same protection under the executive action Obama announced in November.
The first lady’s guest list also suggested Obama planned to address racial tensions and policing in his speech, after riots in Ferguson, Mo., last year helped catapult the issue to the front burner. Obama was to honor a Los Angeles Police Department captain and his wife for their work building community partnership in Watts, the White House said.
Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of The Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)