President appeals to base but opens a bipartisan door
WASHINGTON – At first, it might seem like a naive child’s Christmas wish list, like a kid from Brooklyn asking for a pony, a ride to the International Space Station and two years of free college tuition.
But in reality, the list of very Democratic priorities that President Obama was putting before the Republican-led Congress in Tuesday’s State of the Union address was something much more sophisticated, politicians from both parties said.
It was an attempt to define the Democratic Party as the middle-class party – and Republicans as protectors of the wealthy – while leaving the president with a little wiggle room to strike deals on issues where the two parties are not that far apart.
To be sure, most of the president’s proposals will likely go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress. Republicans said on Capitol Hill said there’s no way they would agree to a capital-gains tax increase or a provision calling for paid family medical leave or a new federal program to finance two years of community college for any American.
Yet in condemning the president’s most partisan ideas, top Republicans also reacted to his various proposals – which have been leaked to the media in dribs and drabs in the last two weeks – with a lack of real vitriol that seemed to leave room for compromise on other issues, including international trade and infrastructure improvements, where the two parties may be more closely aligned.
“The American people aren’t demanding talking-point proposals designed to excite the base but not designed to pass,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “What they said they’re hungry for is substance and accomplishment. They want Washington to get back to work and focus on a serious jobs and reform agenda. They said they’re ready to see more constructive cooperation, especially on bipartisan jobs initiatives.”
There’s no doubt, though that Obama’s proposals include plenty to please the Democratic base – and to try to expand it, especially among middle-class voters.
“His mindset is to keep doing everything he can for the middle class,” White House chief of staff Denis R. McDonough said on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday.
Obama wants to raise the tax on dividends and capital gains to 28 percent from 23.8 percent to fund a $500 tax credit for some families where both spouses work, while expanding the child care tax credit. He wants to increase paid family medical leave and create a $60 billion program to make community college free for all.
It all points toward one goal, said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo. “It’s intended to empower the middle class, and those who want to be in the middle class,” he said.
Some Republicans look at Obama’s proposals, though, and see an entirely different motive.
“He’s just trying to divide the country and paint Republicans as the party that supports millionaires and billionaires, when what we really support is a growing economy and opportunity for all,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
Tarring the GOP in that way, of course, could allow the president to begin to define the debate in the 2016 presidential election in which Obama will be a bystander.
But beyond that, lawmakers from both parties said they saw in some of Obama’s proposals the seeds of possible compromise.
While Collins said Obama’s tax plan might “poison the well” as Congress goes to work on comprehensive tax reform, Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said that’s not necessarily the case. “I’m always the optimist,” he said. “I hope this is an indication that he is moving away from just focusing on big business and the need to reform the business tax code and is willing to work with us to address the tax code for both business and individuals.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed that tax reform remains an area of possible compromise, and both he and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said that there might be some agreement on college affordability, even if Republicans don’t buy Obama’s free-tuition plan.
“It’s not necessarily a nonstarter in Congress.” Gillibrand said of Obama’s college-affordability initiative. “I think there’s a real bipartisan will to make college more accessible.”
What’s more, there could also be a real bipartisan will to address two of the other proposals Obama is pushing: trade negotiation authority for deals in Asia and Europe, as well as an infrastructure spending package.
“If President Obama can be more forward-leaning with members of his party, starting with tonight’s State of the Union address, I think we can get this (fast-track authority) done quickly. That is what I am committed to do,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, according to the Reuters news service.
While some Democrats do not support giving the president the power to negotiate such trade deals, many will likely side with him in his call for $300 billion in infrastructure spending, as well as a proposal to allow public-private partnerships to qualify for infrastructure bonds that could be issued to finance highways, airports and other major public works.
While Collins said he opposes involving the private sector in infrastructure projects because of the hidden costs such deals could impose on taxpayers, he acknowledged that “there’s more room for agreement” on the infrastructure proposal than there is on many of the president’s ideas.
Those ideas seemed particularly familiar to one member of the New York congressional delegation: Schumer, whose book “Positively American” focused on bolstering the middle class, and who delivered a headline-grabbing speech at the National Press Club in November in which he criticized his party for not focusing clearly enough on issues that matter to middle-class voters.
Schumer said that he has not spoken with the president about that issue since the speech, although he has done so in the past. And no matter why Obama is choosing to focus on the middle class now, Schumer said, he is pleased to see it happening.
“It’s a positive speech,” Schumer said before the State of the Union was delivered. “It’s focused on the middle class, which is something near and dear to my heart, and it has a chance to get something done. So I think it will be a good night.”
on January 20, 2015