POLITICS
01/21/2015 01:33 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class

WASHINGTON -- 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.

In the GOP response to the address, freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) suggested that the president has harmed regular people.

“The new Republican Congress also understands how difficult these past six years have been," said Ernst, who first attracted attention by promising to make Washington insiders squeal like the hogs she used to castrate on a farm. "For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day."

Such sentiments were echoed widely by Republicans leaving the address, who pointed to people's struggles as evidence that the GOP's agenda will better serve most Americans.

"If you look at middle-class families who have lost income over the past several years, if you look at Colorado families where median income has declined ... that is not a stronger place than it was, and not a stronger place than it needs to be," said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

"You know, I was disappointed. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear more from the president as far as how we were going to help those middle-class families," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top woman in the GOP leadership. "I thought he painted a little rosy picture of how things are, at a time when people continue to see their wages actually shrink, take-home pay shrinking. Job opportunities are not enough.”

But the tone of the GOP's response highlighted a difficult fact to deal with in the two years before the next presidential election: Republicans are making an argument that is often negative, leaving Obama and Democrats to strike a more positive tone as unemployment continues to fall and hiring improves.

And it is focused right at the heart of the American electorate.

Asked for three highlights in the president's speech, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said: "Middle class, middle class and middle class." And asked if Republicans would be legislative partners on most of the issues Obama raised, Israel responded, "No, no and no."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who has long argued that the Democrats should keep the middle class at the heart of their efforts, didn't see much chance in the GOP topping the pitch Obama laid out.

"We’ve been talking about the middle class for a long time," Schumer said. "They [Republicans] have been talking about budget deficits and cutting the deficit -- not now. Even the [Keystone] pipeline, which is hardly a middle-class bill, 35 permanent jobs, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is saying it's a middle-class jobs bill. They’ve appropriated our rhetoric, but that’s about it. They can’t break away from being a special interest party.”

Some Republicans acknowledged that they had a more negative message, but they also suggested Americans would not buy Obama's prescriptions.

"Those are the kind of background noise that you hear in every State of the Union speech -- kind of a litany or grab bag of proposals. It'll be forgotten by midnight," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) called Obama's ideas "everything for everybody," and suggested that people in his state, at least, would not believe the president.

"They understand that there's nothing in life free," Boozman said. "When you promise universal this, universal that, somebody's going to have to pay for that, and the reality is the middle class always winds up paying the bill."

The basic disagreement over which policies are viable and which ones will do the most to help the nation's most-coveted voting bloc also telegraph what is likely to be a contentious two years, with the GOP willing to embrace almost none of Obama's proposals.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) predicted the likely level of cooperation between the White House and the GOP-led Congress by invoking a phrase used in Passover celebrations that asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

"With regards to Republicans and their antipathy to the president, tonight was no different from all other nights," Grayson said, noting how GOP lawmakers would "sit there like stone" every time Obama outlined one of his priorities. "They don't care ... unfortunately his proposals that require congressional approval are dead on arrival."

Julia Craven, Jesse Rifkin, Donte Stallworth and Maxwell Tani contributed reporting.

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.

Read more here.

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.

Read more here.

01/21/2015 1:37 AM EST

Obama State Of The Union Address Highlights Battle For The Middle Class

HuffPost's Michael McAuliff and Sabrina Siddiqui report:

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.

Read more here.

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).

Read more here.

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.”

Read more here.

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.

Read more here.

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.

Read more here.

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:

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