By – Peter A. Finocchio
On Tuesday night, President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address, and his first to a fully Republican Congress. Many had hoped the President would heed the mandate of the American people rendered in November’s Republican wave and strike a more bipartisan tone, as presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had done after their parties’ midterm shellackings in 1994 and 2006 respectively, but early indications that the President would instead use his time to double down on partisan rhetoric and failed policies proved woefully accurate.
President Obama began his speech by taking credit for what he said was the fastest growing economy since 1999. The President’s claims of job growth and a seemingly shrinking unemployment rate, however, do not tell the true story about the state of the economy. Median household income remains 4.5 percent lower than before the last economic recession. Labor force participation, furthermore, remains at a 36-year low. For the first time in 35 years, business deaths outnumber business births in America. The high cost of health care remains a top financial concern for Americans as rates continue to soar. In fact, low wages and high health care costs are tied for the most important financial concern according to a Gallup poll this month. The President may be ready to declare “mission accomplished” on the economy, but the American people aren’t buying what Obama is trying to sell.
On foreign policy too, the Commander-in-Chief told us “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.” The President boasted that America’s combat mission in Afghanistan is over but failed to reassure us that we had won the peace. He made a similar boast about the end of combat operations in Iraq a few years ago, yet here we are today. Yemen is disintegrating. The Islamic State is still slaughtering children in Iraq and is gaining ground in Syria. But with all the turmoil in the Middle East, President Obama told us that the biggest threat America faces today isn’t the Islamic State but climate change.
Instead of endorsing bipartisan ideas to ease the burden on the American people, President Obama pitched liberal policies to a liberal base. The President lambasted Congress for refusing to raise the minimum wage, telling them, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.” The President acts as if millions of American families have minimum wage breadwinners. Out of the 3.3 million Americans who earned at or below the federal minimum wage in 2013, roughly 0.8% of the American workforce, about a third were full-time workers. More than half were between the ages of 16 and 24. A raise of the minimum wage, even to $15.10, which is $5 more than Obama has requested but is in line with what many activists are demanding, would save the a hypothetical single parent just $49 a month. Liberals have often criticized conservatives for favoring the one percent, but Obama’s minimum wage hike would help far less than one percent, while the economic repercussions would hurt far more, especially first-time workers and the unskilled.
The president’s education policies are also out of touch. At one point, he proposed easing the college squeeze by making community college as free and universal as high school. But Obama is suggesting that we fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Community college costs are already low and affordable for most, with an average yearly tuition and fees of around $3,300. Instead of rallying behind a non-starter that will do nothing to make a quality education more affordable, the president could have joined Republicans on a number of bipartisan reform ideas such as expanding skills training programs and apprenticeship programs. Alternatives to college that relate directly to one’s chosen career path will do more to reduce the cost of higher education than making something free which is already affordable. The president’s plan also makes it harder for families to save for college by taxing the currently tax-free 529 college savings accounts used by about 12 million predominantly middle class families to save for college. Despite his constant promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, which he has already violated countless times, President Obama’s college “fix” would be just that – a massive tax increase on middle class families saving to send their kids to college. Obama’s suggestion for an additional tax credit for second-earner parents, furthermore, also hurts the middle class because it discriminates against the majority of mothers who prefer to work part-time or stay at home, given the opportunity. A better plan, endorsed by the National Review and by several Republican members of Congress, would be to expand the child tax credit to give parents more relief regardless of whether both parents decide to enter the full-time workforce.
Speaking of taxes, no Obama speech would be complete without a call to raise taxes on “the rich.” The president spoke about how lobbyists have riddled the tax code with “giveaways the super-rich don’t need.” But while many loopholes are ineffective and ought to be eliminated and replaced with lower tax rates, the president’s plan involves penalizing America’s job creators with an even higher capital gains tax. President Obama is calling for an additional hike in the capital gains tax, clearly not satisfied with his previous increase just a few years ago. President Obama spoke of encouraging innovation and job creation in America again, but taxes and regulations are a major reason why corporations and individuals are choosing to invest elsewhere. The president wants to double down on a failed approach that is hurting the American economy.
The American people sent a clear message to the president and his Party just two months ago, but President Obama either wasn’t listening or has already forgotten. Rather than lead on real solutions by building bipartisan coalitions in Washington, President Obama proposed more of the same, mocked Republican proposals, and threatened to veto legislation that isn’t to his liking. The American people had hoped that by delivering the Senate to Republicans, the president would see the writing on the wall as both of his predecessors had done in a similar situation. Instead, it will take another election to ease the gridlock.
The Republican response, delivered by freshman Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, was a sharp contrast to the president’s failed policies and rigid partisanship. “Even if we may not always agree, it’s important to hear different points of view in this great country,” Senator Ernst began. This was a clear departure from President Obama’s veto threats and boasting of his two election wins. Ernst assured the American people that she heard their November message “loud and clear” and that the new Republican Congress is working for them. Ernst’s own election to Congress as a Republican woman and the first active-duty female veteran to serve in the United States Senate already is a strong rebuttal to the prevailing liberal “war on women” narrative. Iowa’s first female Senator took aim at the “war on women” on the campaign trail when she responded that she has actually been to war. Ernst shattered another liberal caricature of Republicans – as out of touch with America’s working and middle classes – by sharing her own modest roots with the American people on Tuesday. “As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees,” she said. “We were raised to live simply, not to waste.” Ernst narrated how every rainy day her mother would wrap bread bags around her shoes to keep the one pair of shoes she owned dry.
Senator Ernst’s understanding of the continued struggles of the American people was a vivid departure from the president’s rosy image of economic recovery: “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. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they’ll be able to leave to their children.”
The senator outlined policy areas where the Republican Congress is leading with bipartisan support, such as advancing the Keystone XL pipeline, which the president has threatened to veto. “There’s a lot we can achieve if we work together,” she urged. Ernst then expressed support for trade deals that eliminate barriers in Europe and the Pacific as well as tax reform that removes loopholes and reduces rates. Unlike the president’s call for higher taxes and free community college, Senator Ernst’s suggestions enjoy wide bipartisan support. Senator Ernst challenged the president to cooperate with Congress to advance ideas he has already said he supports.
President Barack Obama and Senator Joni Ernst’s addresses to the American people on Tuesday night could not have been further apart. President Obama boasted about America’s economic recovery while Senator Ernst revealed genuine understanding about the challenges of struggling Americans, from personal experience. The president ignored the election results and continued to berate Congress to embrace his policies. Senator Ernst understood the election loud and clear, not as a mandate for Republicans to get everything they want, but as a call for bipartisan cooperation on pro-growth policies that both parties can rally behind. President Obama’s State of the Union address suggests that he is more concerned with his own ideology than with the priorities of the American people. If gridlock continues to stall legislative action, we know that the buck stops with thepPresident. He can’t hide behind Harry Reid or blame Congress any longer.
For the full text of President Obama’s State of the Union Address you can click here: http://time.com/3675705/full-text-state-union-2015/
You can find the full text and video of Iowa Senator Joni Ernst’s Republican response here: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/gop-response-transcript-joni-ernst-gop-response-114423.html