WASHINGTON -- With the U.S. job market on more solid footing, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to advance a philosophy he’s increasingly embraced over the past year -- that the federal government can and should raise baseline standards inside the American workplace.
Whether it was paid leave, the minimum wage or gender pay equity, the president made his case to a skeptical, Republican-controlled Congress that Washington needs to establish rules governing how the economy works for everyday people, particularly when wages are stagnating despite broader job gains.
“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?” Obama said. “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.”
One of the clearest examples of that philosophy was the space he devoted in his speech to paid sick days and family leave, a priority that administration officials previewed in the days before the address. The president urged lawmakers -- in an all but futile effort, given uniform GOP opposition -- to pass legislation that would guarantee workers the ability to accrue paid sick days on the job.
Like the minimum wage raise Obama called for last year, a mandate that employers offer sick leave would largely benefit workers on the bottom rung of the U.S. economic ladder. An estimated 39 percent of private-sector workers, most of them in lower-wage industries like food and retail, are not guaranteed paid sick days.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” the president said. “And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.”
The president’s paid leave push underscores a basic divide with the GOP House and Senate. Rather than place mandates on employers, the new Congress is pursuing legislation that would instead deregulate industries.
The president doesn’t have the power to unilaterally enact the largest domestic reforms he proposed, such as a hike of the capital gains tax on the wealthy. That means many of his proposals were declared non-starters before he even delivered them. But he once again promised to pursue more modest measures through executive action.
The president can extend maternity and paternity leave to federal workers through what amounts to an accounting trick, while also extending grants to states to pursue their own programs.
“He realizes Congress is never going to work with him,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “It’s clear -- it’s absolutely clear -- so if things are going to get done, he has to do them by himself.
“I think he’s using most of the tools in his toolbox right now,” Eisenbrey added. “He doesn’t have all that much latitude, so they’re being fairly creative.”
The president once again used his annual address to press Congress on raising the minimum wage, a priority that Democrats first put forward nearly two years ago. Some states have since hiked their own minimum wages, including red states, such as Nebraska and South Dakota, while the president instituted a new minimum wage of $10.10 for workers under federal contracts.
“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” the president said. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
The president also chided Congress for failing to pass equal pay legislation, an allusion to the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would give more legal recourse to women who were unfairly paid less than their male counterparts. Republicans have so far blocked the bill in both chambers. While Democrats cheered Obama’s line, Republicans remained seated.
“This Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”
See more on SOTU below:
01/21/2015 3:05 AM EST
Obama Emphasizes U.S. Security Reliance On Shaky Foreign Partners
HuffPost's Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports:
President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address after once again ramping up U.S. military involvement in the Middle East to describe his foreign policy as a judicious mix of military force and diplomacy -- and left no doubt he believes positive engagement with the international community is key to what he called "a safer, more prosperous world."
"I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership," Obama said. "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."
The emphasis on diplomacy was nothing new for the Obama administration, but the president's multiple references to U.S. reliance on partners abroad invites scrutiny that may show those partners falling short of U.S. expectations.
01/21/2015 2:17 AM EST
From Nice-ish To Nasty: How 2016 GOP Contenders Responded To The State Of The Union
HuffPost's Christina Wilkie reports:
Likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates on Tuesday seemed to agree that President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address was off base. What they disagreed on was why. Responses issued by possible contenders after the hour-long speech ranged from civil, optimistic messages to angry visions of a world beset by terrorism.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush gave one of the sunnier Republican responses of the night -- sunnier, that is, for a put-down. "It's unfortunate President Obama wants to use the tax code to divide us -– instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American," Bush said in a statement. "We can do better."
Mitt Romney, Bush's potential rival for the backing of the GOP establishment in 2016, also was measured in his response, calling the speech "disappointing" and "a missed opportunity to lead."
From there, the tenor of the rhetoric intensified.
01/21/2015 1:37 AM EST
Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class
More than anything, President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address signaled a fresh battle for the hearts and minds of America's beleaguered middle class -- and Republicans weren't having any of it.
Obama mentioned the middle class at least seven times and touted "working" people at least nine as he rolled out proposals to offer new child tax credits, raise the minimum wage, extend paid family leave and make college more affordable. He mentioned "families" 16 times.
But well before Obama's speech was over, House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office was firing off responses, declaring that Obama's "regulatory onslaught squeezes the very middle-class families he claims to be trying to help," and that he was threatening to veto what Republicans consider to be jobs bills.
01/21/2015 1:00 AM EST
GOP Mentions Immigration In State of The Union Rebuttal...But Only In Spanish
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
Earlier Tuesday, it appeared the GOP's Spanish-language rebuttal to the State of the Union would be exactly the same as the English-language one, just delivered by a Latino congressman instead of a senator who wants to make English the official U.S. language.
But when the speeches were delivered in the evening, there was at least one major difference -- one key to many Spanish-language audiences. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), delivering the official Republican rebuttal, did not utter the word "immigration" once. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) not only mentioned the issue, but said Republicans want to work on it with President Barack Obama.
"We should also work through the appropriate channels to create permanent solutions for our immigration system, modernize legal immigration and strengthen our economy. In the past, the president has expressed support for ideas like these, now we ask him to collaborate with us to get it done," Curbelo said in the address, translated by liberal group American Bridge (and checked by The Huffington Post).
01/21/2015 12:46 AM EST
Jason Chaffetz: Taxing Inheritance Is 'One Of The Most Immoral Things You Can Do'
HuffPost's Ryan Grim reports:
House and Senate Republicans are rejecting President Barack Obama’s suggestion to reform tax code that allows heirs to inherit extreme amounts of wealth largely tax-free.
“Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth,” Obama said Tuesday night during his annual State of the Union address. “We can use that money to help more families pay for child care and send their kids to college.”
A variety of tax strategies exist to shield much of an inheritance from taxation. And that, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), is as it should be. Chaffetz moved quickly from talking points to genuine anger in responding to the president’s proposal. “That’s a non-starter. The audacity, that he thinks the government has a right to people’s money? He wants to transfer wealth," Chaffetz said. "It’s one of the most immoral things you can do, is try to steal somebody’s inheritance, to steal it away from their family.”
01/21/2015 12:40 AM EST
Dreamers At State Of The Union Hope Obama Continues To Push Forward On Immigration
HuffPost's Elise Foley reports:
The White House and members of Congress often make political statements through their choice of guests for the State of the Union. There is no place that gets more attention than the first lady's box, where the guest list serves as an illustration of the president's priorities for the upcoming year. For the past few years, that list has included Dreamers: Alan Aleman attended as one of the first lady's guests in 2013. In 2014, it was Avila. And this year, 21-year-old Dreamer Ana Zamora was one of Michelle Obama's guests. Other undocumented immigrants, some of them Dreamers, also attended this year, as guests of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).
Even in a speech in which Obama said the word "immigration" only twice -- plus "immigrant" and "immigrants" once each -- the presence of those guests was meant to send a message that Democrats are committed to programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows Dreamers to remain in the country. House Republicans voted last week to end that policy, along with elements of the measures Obama announced in November, such as protections for parents.
Read the full story here.
01/21/2015 12:04 AM EST
State Of The Union Watchers Give Obama High Marks In Instant Poll
HuffPost's Ariel Levy reports:
Americans who watched President Barack Obama's State of the Union address largely approved, giving him better marks than they did for last year's speech, according to instant polling conducted by CNN.
Positive ratings from State of the Union watchers are the rule, not the exception. CNN found Obama getting high marks in all five annual State of the Union speeches they previously polled (the network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012). Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also received largely positive ratings.
Eighty-one percent of viewers had a somewhat positive or very positive opinion of the 2015 State of the Union, according to CNN -- up from 76 percent in 2014, and in line with ratings for Obama's speeches in 2011 and 2013.
01/21/2015 12:01 AM EST
Obama Gives Push To Restoring Voting Rights Act: 'The Right To Vote Is Sacred'
HuffPost's Jennifer Bendery reports:
President Barack Obama pushed Congress Tuesday night to restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even though Republicans signaled last week they have no intention of doing so.
"We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it's being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American," Obama said during his State of the Union address.
01/20/2015 11:17 PM EST
Obama Warns Lawmakers: Stay Away From Iran Talks
HuffPost's Ali Watkins reports:
President Obama warned lawmakers in his State of the Union address on Tuesday against interfering with his administration's nuclear negotiations with Iran, promising to veto any new sanctions legislation that makes it to his desk.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails -- alienating America from its allies and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said. “It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”
Read the full story here.
01/20/2015 11:15 PM EST
Howard Fineman: Joni Ernst Didn’t Say Much In Her SOTU Response
Howard Fineman joins HuffPost Live to weigh in on Sen. Joni Ernst’s Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union. Watch: