Obama also announced the creation of a new study commission to make it easier for Americans to vote without enduring long waits at polling places. The panel will be led by Robert Bauer, Obama’s 2012 campaign counsel, and Benjamin Ginsberg, who held a similar position in Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign.
In an echo of his reelection campaign themes, the president framed many of his proposals around the middle class, which he described as “the true engine of America’s growth” when it is “rising” and “thriving.” But he said that “the unfinished task” of America today is “to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few.”
Education initiatives figured prominently in Obama’s plans to build what he termed “ladders of opportunity” to help poor Americans reach the middle class. They include offering universal preschool for every low- and moderate-income 4-year-old in the country.
Many of the ideas were either recycled proposals or initiatives that would probably require little or no new spending, such as a competition to redesign the nation’s high schools and “promise zones” to help rebuild 20 hard-hit communities by coordinating government assistance and private investment.
Other proposals included a renewed effort to boost the still-recovering housing market. The president wants to waive up to $3,000 in refinancing costs to help homeowners benefit from today’s low interest rates, including those whose mortgages are not government-backed loans.
The president announced that new talks with the European Union would begin on a free trade agreement, an effort to lift export-related sectors of the U.S. economy.
He also called for gradually raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016, a proposal that would probably face an uphill climb in Congress. He said future increases should be automatically tied to cost of living increases, calling that “an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year.”
The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since the first year of Obama’s presidency, although 19 states, including California and Illinois, have since adopted higher rates. According to the White House, raising the minimum wage to $9 by 2016 would restore its real purchasing power to the 1981 level, adjusted for inflation.
But the proposal also reflects the scaled-back reality of Obama’s ambitions in a government stalemated by partisan division. When he came to office four years ago, Obama wanted to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011.
He also proposed a $1-billion plan to create 15 institutes around the country to promote innovative American manufacturing. The White House said Obama would launch three of them immediately, using existing funding from the Defense and Energy departments, among other resources, including contributions from the private sector.
Obama defended his proposals by saying that, taken together, they wouldn’t increase the deficit. But covering the costs of his proposals will require cuts elsewhere, and the full details are unlikely to be available before mid-March, when the president releases his 2014 budget.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like or who you love,” Obama said. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs, that must be the north star that guides our efforts. Every day we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
Obama plans to hit the road after his State of the Union speech to promote his second-term agenda across a diverse range of states – one that voted Republican in the last presidential election, one Democratic and one very much up for grabs.
The first stop on the sales tour will be Wednesday in Asheville, N.C., a new-agey oasis nestled in the mountainous, largely conservative western part of the state. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 but narrowly lost it in 2012, and the state is regarded as the best prospect for future Democratic gains in the South outside Virginia and Florida.
The following day, Valentine’s Day, the president is expected to pitch early childhood education in Decatur, Ga., a trendy town of 20,000 bordering Atlanta. His itinerary includes stops at a citywide pre-kindergarten program and a recreation center. Obama lost solidly Republican Georgia by 8 percentage points, though Democrats may be able to close that gap as minority voters assume a growing share of the electorate.
On Friday, the president will return to his hometown of Chicago and talk about gun violence.
To notch any major goals requiring approval by Congress, Obama will need to act quickly, and the next few months are likely to be critical. By next winter, the approaching midterm election will inevitably come to dominate the Washington mind-set, making compromise even more difficult and landmark accomplishments, if any, exceedingly rare. Beyond the elections in 2014 – when Obama’s party will lose seats in Congress, if history is any guide – the president will come to be seen as a lame duck, making him more and more irrelevant, outside of a foreign policy crisis requiring immediate action.
With that time line in mind, Obama was at or near the height of his remaining power when he strode into the crowded chamber of the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening.