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5 Takeaways From Obama’s State Of The Union Speech

By Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Nearing the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama used his final State of the Union address Tuesday night to tout his record, hoping to frame the coming elections on his terms much as he did eight years ago when he seized the White House.

At times serious, at times joking with the Republicans who control the Congress, Obama focused on the successes of his presidency and what he said should be an optimism about the future rather than the gloomy portraits of the country in GOP campaigns.

“For this final one,” he said of his speech, “I’m going to try to make it shorter. I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”

Here are five important takeaways from Obama’s speech:

Iran overshadows

Reports that Iran was holding 10 American service members and two U.S. Navy boats threatened to cloud Obama’s speech and his contention that his nuclear weapons deal with Tehran stands to make the world a safer place. Obama didn’t mention the incident, but aides said earlier that the U.S. was “working to resolve the situation” and was hopeful that the sailors would soon be released.

Republicans have been critical of Obama’s foreign policy: Despite a nearly 18-month campaign of airstrikes and advisers, the U.S. has yet to contain the Islamic State.

Obama reiterated his call for Congress to officially authorize bombings in Iraq and Syria, but some Republicans say they believe that could tie the hands of the next president.

And he sought to tamp down fears, saying that although the Islamic State represents the most pressing threat to national security, it is not a threat to the existence of the U.S.

“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth,” Obama said. “Period. It’s not even close.”

The state of Obama

Obama spent much of the speech reciting what he said were his accomplishments improving the quality of life for Americans at home and boosting the United States’ standing around the globe.

He touted his signature legislative accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, as well as the resurgence in the economy after the recession, a global climate change agreement, a nuclear deal with Iran and easing of relations with Cuba.

And he didn’t shy away from speaking about the controversial actions he took on his own — on immigration and gun control — when Congress failed to act as he wanted.

In a departure, several guests in first lady Michelle Obama’s box at the address did not represent policy proposals, but rather sought to “personify Obama’s time in office.”

Obama did not mention any specific candidate for president by name. This speech was not designed to help his chosen successor, but rather give his party a platform from which to run.

Optimism

Obama sought to convey a sense of optimism and draw a contrast with what his advisers say is a tone of “doom and gloom” emanating from the Republican candidates seeking to replace him in the White House.

While the Republicans on the trail have depicted his presidency as a failure that has made the U.S. less safe, Obama pitched his agenda as a success, arguing that the U.S. economy is on the rebound, graduation rates are up and more Americans have health care insurance. He said America’s standing in the world is improved and he celebrated Americans he has met as he traveled.

But Americans remain overwhelmingly unconvinced that the U.S. is heading in the right direction. Less than a quarter of Americans said they’re satisfied with the way things are going, according to a recent Gallup poll of 1,012 adults.

Bipartisan cooperation?

Obama tried to shake off a sense of lame duck status, insisting that compromise in gridlocked Washington is possible. In recent weeks, he and Congress agreed on a massive spending bill and Obama held out hope they could find common ground on his ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, criminal justice reform and efforts to tackle the heroin epidemic ravaging many communities.

“Who knows, we might surprise the cynics again,” Obama said.

But if Obama saw bipartisan opportunity, Republicans were eager to remind him about their differences. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was seated behind Obama for the first time, joked Tuesday that he was practicing his “poker face” but tweeted that since he and Obama don’t agree on much, it “might be hard to hide that in my facial expressions.”

Republicans didn’t hide their opposition, stocking the audience with administration critics. Among Ryan’s guests: two nuns representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that is suing the administration, arguing that the Affordable Care Act is forcing their insurance to cover birth control. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who blames Obama’s environmental regulations for decimating the coal industry, invited a fourth-generation coal miner who lost his job when a mine closed.

Last chance for promises

Each year, advocacy groups bombard the White House with proposals they hope the president will mention in his State of the Union address. It took on added significance this time, since it was Obama’s last chance to act on a flurry of campaign promises.

He heard from those wanting to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, rewrite the nation’s immigration laws and remove unaccountable money out of politics. Even those who said he promised to implement a federal mandate to label genetically modified food, called for him to act.

But Obama left many of those groups disappointed as his speech was less a traditional State of the Union and more a speech about his vision for the nation.

(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Surprise: Obama Actually Does Get Things From State Of The Union

By Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As he prepares for his final State of the Union address next week to a seemingly hostile Republican Congress, President Barack Obama has an unusual and surprising reason to be optimistic.

Despite the image of gridlock in Washington, Obama actually had more successes than failures in the goals he pitched in his last State of the Union speech.

A McClatchy analysis shows he partially or fully fulfilled 11 of his 20 major goals for the year. Here’s what he sought, and what he got:

Trade promotion authority “to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe.” Partially fulfilled.
Congress granted Obama the “fast-track” trade authority, allowing him to negotiate trade deals without lawmakers getting an opportunity to change the details. But prospects remain dim for winning approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal that would rank as the largest in history.

A “bold new plan” to make tuition free at community college across the country. Unfulfilled.
Obama unveiled his America’s College Promise plan and included the first installment of the 10-year, $60 billion plan in his budget proposal. It was not approved by Congress.

Legislation addressing cyberattacks and identity theft. Fulfilled.
A cybersecurity bill that included White House input and encourages companies to share cyberthreat information with the government was included in the recent $1.1 trillion spending bill that Obama signed into law.

Ensure men and women are paid the same for doing the same work. Unfulfilled.
Obama pushed the Paycheck Fairness Act, but Republicans blocked the bill, saying it would lead to job losses. Republicans introduced the Workplace Advancement Act, which Democrats described as too weak. It did not pass.

Protect a “free and open Internet.” Fulfilled.
Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to support net neutrality, which would allow for the federal regulation of broadband Internet providers. The FCC voted 3-2 in February to do just that.

Close loopholes that allow the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. Unfulfilled.
Obama urged lawmakers to eliminate the single largest capital gains loophole, which he says lets hundreds of billions of dollars escape taxation each year. Congress has not made the change.

International agreement on climate. Fulfilled.
The Obama administration struck a climate change agreement with nearly 200 nations. The coal industry and congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are trying to overturn his domestic climate agenda in the courts.

Increase the minimum wage. Mostly unfulfilled.
Obama proposed raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. Democratic lawmakers introduced various bills that would raise the minimum wage up to $15. None passed. But the White House said Obama’s call helped push 17 states and 31 localities to increase their minimum wages. Some companies have acted on their own.

“Pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year.” Partially fulfilled.
Obama failed to secure his $478 billion plan, but he was able to claim some progress when he signed a five-year, $305 billion spending bill to fix crumbling roads and bridges, the first federal transportation funding legislation since 2005 to last longer than two years.

“Show the world” the United States is united against the Islamic State by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against the group in Iraq and Syria. Unfulfilled.
Congress failed to pass a resolution authorizing the deployment of the U.S. military to Iraq and the use of U.S.-led airstrikes, with Republicans criticizing the White House plan as too restrictive on ground troops and Democrats panning it as overly broad. However, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently said he’s instructed lawmakers to begin looking at a possible new war authorization.

Crack down on a controversial practice that allows U.S. companies to relocate abroad to avoid paying federal taxes. Partially fulfilled.
Republicans have resisted, saying it should be addressed in a broader overhaul of corporate taxation. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew did take steps to make it more difficult for U.S. companies to merge with smaller overseas rivals, following up on similar action in 2014.

Make voting easier for Americans. Unfulfilled.
Lawmakers, mostly Democrats, introduced bills to update the landmark Voting Rights Act, which they say was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. Republicans opposed the bills. Some states, including Texas and North Carolina, implemented tougher voter requirements that are being challenged in court.

Oppose a sanctions bill that threatened negotiations over his Iran deal. Fulfilled.
Obama won a major victory after months of lobbying when he secured backing for the agreement from enough Senate Democrats to rebuff Republican efforts to derail the deal.

Allow American workers to earn seven days of paid sick leave. Mostly unfulfilled.
Democrats proposed legislation. It did not pass. But the White House said Obama’s call helped push four states and 20 localities to take action. Obama also signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay up to seven days of leave each year. Some companies have acted on their own.

Move the United States closer to curing diseases and give Americans access to personalized health information. Fulfilled.
Obama released the Precision Medicine Initiative and included $215 million in his budget proposal to be split between cancer research and building a national, large-scale research participant group of all ages, racial and socioeconomic groups. Congress included the money in the budget.

Close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a 2008 campaign pledge that has long eluded him. Unfulfilled.
The White House sought to develop a plan to outline how it would shutter the prison, but the defense policy bill that Obama signed bans him from moving detainees to the United States, complicating the administration’s efforts. As 2016 opened, more than 100 captives were still being held at the Navy base, and the administration had yet to deliver its closure plan to Congress.

“Begin the work of ending the embargo” against Cuba. Partially fulfilled.
Long-standing measures restricting U.S. trade with the island nation and preventing most American citizens from traveling there are still in effect despite Obama’s efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Havana. Members of Congress in both chambers, however, have introduced legislation to lift them.

Make quality child care more affordable through a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year. Unfulfilled.
Obama included an expansion of the Dependent Care Tax Credit in his budget proposal. Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would do the same thing. None passed.

Work with Congress to ensure that borrowers paying back student loans can reduce their monthly payments. Partially fulfilled.
Democratic lawmakers introduced bills to reduce debt for loan borrowers, but Republicans rejected them because they rely on raising taxes for the wealthy. Through executive actions, Obama expanded the federal pay-as-you-earn program, allowing borrowers to cap monthly student loan payments at 10 percent of their incomes.

Use declining crime and incarceration rates as a starting point for bipartisan criminal justice reform. Partially fulfilled.
Numerous Republicans support a revamp, and there are House and Senate proposals to do so, though significant differences remain.

(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File 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)

Obama Writes Article On Africa’s Promise As Summit Opens

By Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As he kicks off a historic meeting of African leaders, President Barack Obama tells Americans that the United States must invest in an up-and-coming Africa that’s trying to shed its image of poverty and disease.

“We can’t lose sight of the extraordinary promise of Africa,” Obama wrote in an opinion piece McClatchy published Tuesday. “And just as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent, put aside old stereotypes, and respond to Africans’ desire for a partnership of equals where Africans take the lead in their own development.”

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which began Monday in Washington, brings together leaders of nearly all African nations, lawmakers, business leaders, and development organizations for a three-day meeting designed to boost economic ties between the United States and Africa.

Obama wrote in his op-ed that the goal of the summit he’s billing as the largest gathering of African leaders ever in Washington is to expand trade and create jobs, strengthen democracies, and combat threats, including those from terrorist groups.

“A new Africa is emerging,” he wrote. “This week I’m making it clear that (Africans) will find no better friend than the United States, because Africa’s success will mean greater security and prosperity for all our nations for decades to come.”

But Obama’s summit is competing for attention with a deadly Ebola outbreak that’s raging in parts of Africa, as well as with other crises in Ukraine, Iraq, and the Middle East.

A handful of African leaders canceled their visits to deal with the virus, but White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that some attendees hailed from countries where the outbreak had occurred. He said the Secret Service and the State Department had ensured that officers were trained to identify those exhibiting any symptoms.

Earnest said anyone starting to exhibit symptoms would be quarantined and treated. He noted, too, that individuals from the countries were screened before boarding aircraft in their home countries and again upon arriving in the United States.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to leaders who also participated in a series of roundtables on health, food security, climate, and wildlife trafficking. Members of Congress were to host a reception Monday night.

Biden spoke before a gathering of civil society groups, encouraging them to keep governments honest. “There’s so much at stake, but the opportunities are so vast,” he said. “In your hands, with your help, Africa can and will go so much further.”

Biden urged the groups to keep tabs on their governments and help root out corruption.

“Corruption is not unique to Africa. But it’s a cancer,” he said. “It’s a cancer in Africa as well as around the world. Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of its people and a direct threat to each of your nations’ stability, all nations’ stability.”

Obama will speak Tuesday at the end of the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, sponsored by the Commerce Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Former President Bill Clinton will moderate the opening session. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama then will host African leaders at a dinner at the White House.

Wednesday’s program will focus on democracy and peace. Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush will participate in a separate daylong event on issues geared toward women and girls: education, cancer, and improving their lives through entrepreneurship.

Obama didn’t pay much attention to sub-Saharan Africa in his first term as he confronted a series of domestic and international crises. Last summer, he traveled to Africa to start repairing that relationship.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

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Obama Urges Congress: Give America A Raise

By Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — President Barack Obama — and the governors of four New England states — dined Wednesday at a college town eatery that pays its employees more than the minimum wage, as Obama pressed his election-year campaign to “give America a raise.”

“He knows what it’s like to work all his life and he understands that if people are working hard they shouldn’t be in poverty,” Obama said of the owner of the Cafe Beauregard.

Obama was joined by Govs. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Peter Shumlin of Vermont. He noted that in the year since he’s been pushing to raise the federal minimum wage, six states have passed laws to raise theirs, including Connecticut.

From lunch, Obama took his case to Central Connecticut State University, urging Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for tens of millions hourly workers from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by 2015.

“Too many Americans are working harder than ever just to keep up,” Obama said. “It is a central task for all of us to build an economy that works for everybody, not just for some.”
Obama said a number of employers, including Costco and most recently Gap, have boosted wages.

“It’s not bad business to do right by your workers, it’s good business,” he said, noting higher wages can help lower turnover, boost morale and increase productivity.

A number of business groups oppose raising the minimum wage, and critics point to a Congressional Budget Office report issued last month that said the most likely scenario under Obama’s proposal would be that almost 1 million people would be lifted out of poverty, but that another 500,000 could lose their jobs.

The legislation “might sound good in theory, but could cost as many as a million jobs,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week.

The minimum wage campaign is a key piece of the yearlong agenda Obama unveiled in his State of the Union address. Last month he signed an executive order boosting the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees involved in future government contracts.

But, he said, “to finish the job, Congress has to get on board.”

He said it shouldn’t “be that hard,” because “nearly three in four Americans” support raising the minimum wage. But Republicans in Congress are opposed.

“Maybe I should say I oppose raising the minimum wage,” Obama quipped to laughter. “They’d be for it, that’s possible.”

Workers who didn’t get a minimum-wage increase, Obama said, got the “equivalent of a $200 pay cut,” because their salaries aren’t keeping pace with inflation.

“That’s a month of groceries for the average minimum-wage worker,” he said. “That’s two months’ worth of electricity.”

He pushed back against criticism that raising pay would hurt the economy, saying workers would spend the money.

“Which means that suddenly, businesses have more customers, which means they make more profits, which means they can hire more workers,” he said. “Which means, you get a virtuous cycle. It’s common sense.”

Although many Democratic lawmakers support legislation to increase the minimum wage, it’s not been a priority for the Senate leadership. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said there won’t be vote on the measure until late March or early April.

Polls do suggest there is widespread public support. A Pew Research Center survey conducted last month found strong support for increasing the minimum wage, with 73 percent of those surveyed in favor.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb