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Obama Defends $4-Trillion Budget, Cites National Security

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama launched Monday into the first clash in a series of budget battles as he unveiled his nearly $4-trillion spending plan, immediately calling on Republicans to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security despite their objections to his new immigration policy that the agency will carry out.

“Don’t jeopardize our national security over this disagreement,” Obama said Monday in remarks at the department. Its funding is set to expire at the end of the month. He warned Republicans not to “play politics” with economic and national security.

Obama made the push as he released a budget for fiscal 2016 aimed at securing his political position as the defender of the middle class. His plan blows past mandatory spending caps to beef up programs that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans and proposes to pay for the programs with tax hikes on the wealthiest taxpayers, major corporations and financial firms.

The document completes Obama’s shift from years of grim economic forecasts and austerity cuts into what he’s labeled “America’s resurgence.” His budget projects an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent in 2016 and falls to a low of 4.9 percent in 2017 and 2018 — before climbing slightly over the next several years.

Over that same period, Obama’s plan would essentially maintain deficit spending at the current levels as a slice of the economy – around 2.5 percent of gross domestic product — and would continue to add to the debt over the next decade.

Obama made the case Monday for the increased investment as necessary to sustain a strong recovery and to ensure the success of U.S. missions abroad.

“We can afford to make these investments while remaining fiscally responsive,” Obama said. “In fact … we can’t afford not to.”

Obama’s approach won poor marks from advocates of entitlement reform.

“Failing to address the drivers of the debt will ultimately undermine the president’s other priorities,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan advocacy group Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “The focus on promoting investment today will do little good if our massive debt is choking the investments of tomorrow. And the desire to strengthen middle-class families cannot be fulfilled if Social Security and Medicare remain on a path to insolvency with huge across-the-board cuts looming in the future.”

Republicans have already declared much of the new spending a liberal pipe dream with no chance of winning approval – a point the White House did not dispute. Still, the plan was an opening offer with elements meant to draw Republicans into talks.

The president’s budget includes a proposal to overhaul how companies pay taxes on offshore profits with a one-time 14 percent tax and a 19 percent tax rate going forward. The plan would pay for roughly half of a new $478 billion public-works program. Republicans have signaled their openness to such a scheme in the past.

Obama’s budget also calls to end the so-called sequestration budget restraints set to take effect this spring. Republicans also have expressed interest on removing the caps – although only for defense spending.

Obama indicated he was ready to use that as leverage in winning money for domestic programs.

“I’m not going to accept a budget that locks in sequestration going forward,” Obama said, adding that he would oppose a deal that “severs the vital link” between defense spending and domestic priorities.

“Those two things go hand in hand,” he said.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a event to promote a new health care program by approving $215 million for a Precision Medicine Initiative designed to help doctors tailor treatments to the individual characteristics of their patients in the East Room of the White House Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

‘The Shadow Of Crisis Has Passed,’ Obama Says In State Of The Union Speech

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)

Obama Appears To Have Rare Bipartisan Support On Islamic State

By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his advisers appear to have convinced Americans that the Islamic State militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria are a threat to the United States. This week he’ll try to prove he’s capable of taking them on.

In laying out a plan to use U.S. air power, multinational partners, and proxy fighters to “ultimately destroy” the al-Qaida offshoot, Obama appears to have landed in a rare moment of bipartisan backing. Polls released over the weekend show that sizable majorities of both Republicans and Democrats support Obama’s tactics.

But the support hasn’t immediately translated into a clear political boost for the president or a surge of congressional support for him. In one survey, most Americans said they have little confidence that the plan will succeed and added that his remarks didn’t change their opinion of Obama.

The skepticism reflects the months of sagging public confidence in the president, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs. A summer of crises in Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, and Iraq and Syria has sunk Obama’s approval rating to near lows in some polls. Both friend and foe have criticized the president for his seeming indecisiveness or tentative reaction to global trouble. Democrats running in tight races have kept a safe distance.

The doubts have been clear in Congress, where GOP lawmakers grappled Monday with how to support a strategy from a president they say they do not trust. Meanwhile, administration officials tried to persuade foreign leaders to go all in.

At a conference in Paris on Monday, key players Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates agreed to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State “by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance.” But the statement made no reference to taking the fight to Syria, the extremist group’s stronghold.

Pentagon officials announced Monday that the United States had expanded the fight on its own, with airstrikes launched southwest of Baghdad that destroyed an Islamic State fighting position firing on Iraqi government forces. The attack was the first to be conducted as part of the expanded mission announced by Obama last week to help Iraqi troops mount a vigorous new offense against the militant group.

On the diplomatic front, the White House has scheduled a week of events that could burnish the president’s image as commander in chief and demonstrate his willingness to use military might.

Obama is slated Wednesday to visit U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, to huddle with advisers planning newly expanded military operations in Iraq and Syria. The visit will focus in part on how to manage the emerging coalition of allies, senior administration officials said Monday. The president is also expected to address troops at the base.

The visit will follow a similar briefing Tuesday at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where he’ll outline a new effort to use U.S. military resources to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The schedule illustrates Obama’s sustained engagement on national security issues, according to senior administration officials, who would not be quoted talking about political strategy. They acknowledged there is more work to do in building support on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, Republican leaders unveiled an alternative to the White House’s request to arm Syrian fighters who oppose the government of President Bashar Assad for battle against Islamic State. The revised proposal added a hefty dose of congressional oversight in an attempt to soothe Republicans wanting to endorse plans to take on Islamic State, but wary of giving the president their backing.

The GOP proposal would require the Pentagon to present to Congress its plan for vetting and arming a Syrian opposition group at least 15 days prior to the first time such support is provided, and update lawmakers every 90 days to determine whether it’s working. A vote could come as soon as Wednesday.

Republicans’ qualified support for Obama’s strategy was in line with the public surveys. Six in 10 Democrats and a slightly larger share of Republicans said they backed Obama’s plan, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Monday. Self-identified independents were more skeptical, but overall, Americans supported Obama’s plan by about 53 percent to 29 percent, with 19 percent unsure, the poll found.

But the support came with sizable doubts.

Fewer than 1 in 5 of those surveyed by Pew said they thought U.S. military action would make America safer from a terrorist attack, while about one-third said they thought the U.S.-led campaign would increase the chances of being attacked.

Similarly, although nearly two-thirds of Americans said they supported Obama’s strategy, 70 percent said they did not have confidence that it would succeed in degrading or eliminating the threat the group poses, according to a separate poll conducted after his speech last week by the Annenberg Center for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

That survey left little sign that Obama’s prime-time speech outlining his strategy had changed his political standing. One in 5 respondents said they walked away with a less favorable opinion of the president, while 26 percent said they had a more favorable opinion. Most — 53 percent — said the speech made no difference. The poll showed his approval rating at about 40 percent.

Administration officials argued Monday that it matters less how the public views Obama and his handling of foreign policy in general than how it views his plans. On that measure, they noted, the president’s policy scores well.

Still, there’s little doubt his Democratic allies are watching the president’s overall approval rating closely. Analysts say a rising anxiety about a new threat compounded by a broader mood of unease about the economy and discontent with Washington could only mean bad news for the president — and his party.

Allies said the president needs more time. After years of reluctance to re-engage in new wars, the public, particularly Democrats, wants to be convinced that the involvement is limited and necessary.

“He has said it,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and, until recently, Obama’s ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “Now he has to say it twice, say it again, say it constantly.”

Republicans had a harsher assessment.

Voters see “the president himself and his lack of foreign policy as part of the problem and the reason we’re facing the problems we’re facing right now,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster and strategist.

AFP Photo

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