Obama Unveils Ambitious Plans in State of the Union Speech, but Has Limited Means to Achieve his Goals

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn before President Obama's State of the Union address. (Larry Downing / Associated Press / January 28, 2014)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn before President Obama’s State of the Union address. (Larry Downing / Associated Press / January 28, 2014)

President Obama‘s sixth speech on the state of the union spotlighted many issues, but more than anything it illuminated the vast gap between his policy ambitions and the tools he has to achieve them.

The president made the ambition clear last month, when he referred to a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” in the U.S. as the “the defining challenge of our time,” a theme he repeated Tuesday night.

“After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” he said, “but average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.”

Framing the issue primarily around the lack of progress for working Americans, rather than the outsized gains of the wealthiest, matters politically because convincing the public to focus on the issue makes up Obama’s first challenge. So far, Americans have expressed mixed reactions to talk of income inequality, polls by several major organizations have shown.

Large majorities of Americans — 60% in a recent Pew Research Center survey — say they believe the “economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy,” and even more agreed that the gap between the rich and everyone else had grown significantly. But only a minority, 45%, believe that “reducing income inequality between the rich and poor” is an “absolute priority” that Congress and the president need to address this year, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Tuesday.

Perhaps with that ambivalence in mind, Obama has moved away from the most direct method of reducing the income gap. In sharp contrast with previous State of the Unionspeeches, he did not renew his call for further increases in income tax rates on top earners.

Instead, Obama emphasized a collection of policies that he and his advisors hope can ultimately boost incomes for those in the bottom and middle.

But the very fact that wage stagnation and income inequality have worsened for nearly four decades — through the presidencies of four Republican and three Democratic presidents — shows the difficulty of the task Obama would like to take on. To accomplish it, he has limited options.

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SOURCE: David Lauter
The Los Angeles Times