WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork) — In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama urged Americans to “turn the page” on years of economic troubles, terrorism and lengthy wars 15 years into the 21st century.
As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported Obama is a lame duck with two years to go, and he is thinking now of his legacy and determining to wring some victories from a Congress where both houses are controlled by Republicans.
In starting out his speech, Obama noted that the 21st century began with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, followed by two long and expensive wars and a “vicious” recession.
But he argued that his own presidency had ushered in an era of smarter American leadership and a growing U.S. economy.
“Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years,” Obama said.
Obama also noted that the combat mission in Afghanistan is over for the first time since just after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” the president said.
But he also said it is time to figure out what the country will look like in 15 years to come, and in decades to come.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he said. “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?
“Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another – or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?” Obama continued.
Obama noted that he promised to work to rebuild a sputtering economy when he was first elected president in the depths of the 2008 Great Recession, and argued that he had succeeded.
“We believed we could reverse the tide of outsourcing, and draw new jobs to our shores. And over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs,” Obama said.
Obama added that the country has reduced is dependence on foreign oil and the average family will save $750 per year at the pump this year due to lower gas prices. He said further that the high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high for American youth, and more Americans finish college than ever before.
“So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way,” Obama said.
Obama also said the economic recovery is touching more and more lives, and wages are rising. But he said more needs to be done to ensure opportunity for all Americans.
“That’s what middle-class economics is – the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success – we want everyone to contribute to our success,” Obama said.
He called for a series of measures that he said would help working families feel more secure, including a greater availability of child care, paid sick leave, and a bill to ensure that women are paid the same as men for the same work. He also called on a Congress to approve a plan to make community college free.
And in a direct challenge to GOP economic ideology, Obama called for increasing the capital gains rate on couples making more than $500,000 annually, to 28 percent.
The president’s tax plan would also require estates to pay capital gains taxes on securities at the time they’re inherited and slap a fee on the roughly 100 U.S. financial firms with assets of more than $50 billion.
Much of the $320 billion in new taxes and fees would be used for measures aimed at helping the middle class, including a $500 tax credit for some families with two spouses working, expansion of the child care tax credit and a $60 billion program to make community college free. He also has called for expanding paid leave for workers and moved on his own to lower a mortgage insurance premium rate that could attract new home-buyers.
Obama also addressed the “challenges from beyond our shores” that still pose threats. He cautioned against “getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts” rather than focusing on a broader strategy.
“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. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference,” Obama said.
Obama noted that the threat of terrorism is as present as ever, from the school in Peshawar, Pakistan where militants killed 145 people, to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris earlier this month.
“We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies,” he said.
He called on Congress to “show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
But Obama said the solution to stop threats, most notably including Islamic State militants, is to use a broad-based coalition rather than engaging in a protracted ground war. He also emphasized the power of diplomacy, particularly in ending restrictions on relations with Cuba that were “long past (their) expiration date.”
Obama further called for a focus on climate change that will not allow “this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.” He also added that he “will not relent” in his determination to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Obama further challenged Republicans to raise the federal minimum wage, which is now $7.25 an hour. And he’s laying down a dare to anyone in Congress who refuses to raise the minimum wage.
Obama says that if lawmakers truly believe they can work full time and support a family of four on less than $15,000 a year, then they should try it. The salary of most senators and House members is $174,000.
Obama has proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10. It was pegged at $7.25 in 2009.
CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer said whether President Obama can “turn the page” depends on whether Congress will cooperate.
“The proof of this pudding is going to be convincing these people who are out there tonight – who gave him a very good reception – convincing them to work together,” Schieffer said.
Schieffer noted that the previous Congress – which included many current members — accomplished virtually nothing in two years.
Meanwhile, mixing calls for bipartisanship with a flexing of GOP muscle, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, delivered her party’s official response to the State of Union address.
Ernst cited Americans’ worries about stagnant wages, lost jobs and canceled health care coverage. In prepared remarks, she called on Obama to cooperate with Republicans to simplify the tax code by lowering rates and eliminating unspecified loopholes and to ease trade barriers with Europe and Asia.
Yet Ernst also listed a parade of looming clashes with the president, including GOP efforts to force construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, balance the budget without raising taxes and restrict abortions.
“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,” Ernst said, referring to the Obama health care overhaul that Republicans loathe. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”
Ernst’s speech marked her party’s first State of the Union response under Obama in which the GOP has held House and Senate majorities. It came as Republicans hope to expand their appeal among women and minorities ahead of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
“We heard the message you sent in November, loud and clear,” she said. “And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.”
The morning after the State of the Union, Obama was headed to a pair of conservative-leaning states to promote his agenda for his seventh year in office: Idaho and Kansas.
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