President Barack Obama Tuesday night pressed a divided Congress to agree on measures to simplify the nation’s tax code, overhaul the immigration laws, raise the federal minimum wage, and toughen gun restrictions.
In a State of the Union address delivered to a joint session of Congress, Obama hoisted a direct challenge to lawmakers, urging them to put aside their differences and adopt a market-based system that would lead to steep reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.
But in a nod to the fact that a similar bill died in a Democratic-controlled Senate in 2010, Obama said that if lawmakers fail “to act soon to protect future generations, I will.’’
With that warning, Obama made clear that his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would adopt rules to curb emissions of greenhouse gasses from power plants and industries, saying his administration would “reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.’’
Obama also called for Congress to continue to back the transformation to a clean energy economy, declaring that “the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.’’
Obama delivered his speech at a time of mounting national and international challenges. The government is facing the prospect of $85 billion in automatic spending cuts beginning next month, the gross domestic product contracted ever so slightly in the fourth quarter last year and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 7.9 percent.
In addition, on the eve of the speech, North Korea conducted an underground test of a nuclear bomb, which some analysts suggested was a deliberate finger in Obama’s eye. Syria remains in the grips of a civil war and Iran has displayed little interest in negotiations with Western nations on the future of its nuclear weapons’ program.
Obama also announced new steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year.
He told lawmakers that the nation is stronger than when he took office in 2009, he acknowledged “there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded.’’
“Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment,’’ Obama said. “Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.’’
House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., on Tuesday night said Americans are still asking, ‘where are the jobs?’ “Tonight, he offered them little more than more of the same ‘stimulus’ policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work,” Boehner said. “We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes.”
Obama used the middle class as a way to highlight his call for reforming the tax code and reducing the federal budget deficit. He said that the White House and Congress have already approved spending reductions and higher taxes to take a $2.5 trillion whack out of the projected federal deficit during the next decade.
But to cut an additional $1.5 trillion during the next 10 years that Obama said “economists say we need to stabilize our finances,’’ he called for saving “hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?’’
With that declaration, Obama set up a collision course between himself and congressional Republicans such as Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio who have supported a simpler tax code that also would lower income tax rates for all Americans. By contrast, Obama is backing tax reform that will lead to higher taxes on wealthier Americans.
In addition, Obama sharply objected to the $85 billion in automatic spending reductions scheduled to go into effect next month – reductions evenly divided between defense and domestic programs. The biggest impact of these cuts in the Dayton-Springfield area could be the furlough of 13,000 civilian workers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The cuts could result in as much as a 20 percent cut in pay for them through September.
Among those attending the speech was Jason Barlow, president of United Auto Workers Local 402, which represents the workers at the Navistar truck plant in Springfield. Barlow was invited to attend the speech by Boehner, whose district includes Clark County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.