In 2014, President Obama issued a direct challenge to Congress in his State of the Union: Here is my agenda, and if you don’t do your part I will do what I can with my executive power.
There was no such direct threat in his 2015 address, but that doesn’t mean he is any less reliant on Congress. Nearly all of his proposals in 2015, including expanding paid sick leave, making two years of community college free, and reforming the tax code, require Congress to act. He can do even less alone this year than he could last year.
Mr. Obama still has a to-do list for himself, but he also seems prepared to bombard Congress with proposals that will only become law if they take action. He has an ambitious list of proposals and monetary requests for his 2015 budget, but Congress still controls the purse strings. His State of the Union address was all about putting those proposals on the table, and offering a contrast with Republicans.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he said Tuesday.
He also had a few requests for the corporate world that fit into his theme of making life better for the American middle class.
Here’s a look at what Mr. Obama has promised to do, where he needs Congress, and what he has asked of CEOs around the country:
The president’s to-do list:
- Veto, veto veto: With Congress fully in Republican hands for the first time during his presidency, Mr. Obama no longer has a Democrat-controlled Senate to stop bills he won’t sign from reaching his desk. That means his veto pen stands to get quite a workout this year, and Mr. Obama has already pledged to veto seven bills in the pipeline. In his State of the Union address, he pledged to veto anything that: “[puts] the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or [unravels] the new rules on Wall Street, or [refights] past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix.” He also warned that he would reject any bill with fresh sanctions on Iran while the U.S. and other world powers are still negotiating a deal to end its nuclear program, and hinted that he would stop Congress from trying to block anything his administration has done unilaterally to fight climate change.
- Curing disease with the help of the human genome: The president said he was launching this initiative to help cure diseases like cancer and diabetes with targeted treatments based in part on a person’s genetic makeup. However the success and of the program seems highly dependent the increased research and development funding he will propose in his budget – which is subject to congressional approval.
- Call for net neutrality: “I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” Mr. Obama said. The president has previously called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to force internet providers to treat all web traffic the same, but since the FCC is an independent regulatory body all he can do is offer his opinion.
- Balancing civil liberties with aggressive surveillance methods: The Senate failed to pass legislation in 2014 that would have reformed the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection methods, but Mr. Obama said he hasn’t forgotten about the importance of reform. He promised to issue a report next month on how the intelligence agencies are adopting recommendations from privacy advocates to increase transparency and prevent infringement on Americans’ civil liberties.
Where he needs Congress:
- Access to affordable, quality childcare: Mr. Obama’s plan to make child care more available and affordable depends on his proposal to overhaul the tax code – which is controlled by Congress – in order to provide a $3,000 credit per young child to help families pay for care and an additional credit of up to $500 when both spouses work. His budget will also contain funding to expand access and improve the quality of child-care programs.
- Paid sick leave: Mr. Obama wants Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow working Americans to earn up to seven days per year of paid sick time, and he is proposing more than $2 billion in new funding to encourage states to develop their own programs for paid family and medical leave. He also wants Congress to pass legislation that would give federal employees six weeks of paid parental leave.
- Minimum wage increase: “To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise,” Mr. Obama said. But he pushed hard for an increase in the minimum wage in 2014 as well, and Senate Republicans blocked legislation to do so.
- Two free years of community college: An ambitious proposal to waive the first two years of tuition for full-time and half-time students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average would cost $60 billion over the next 10 years. The White House wants to finance the plan in part by hiking capital gains taxes on wealthy Americans and imposing a fee on large financial firms.
- Reduce student loan payments: This plan – to cut taxes for 8.5 million families and students, simplify taxes for the 25 million-plus families and students that claim education tax benefits, and provide students working toward a college degree with up to $2,500 of assistance each year for five years — requires an overhaul of tax-based financial aid.
- Infrastructure: “Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come,” Mr. Obama said. He also appealed to Congress to pass a major transportation overhaul, but this seems unlikely, as lawmakers barely managed to stop the Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt in 2014. Plus, he wants to fund infrastructure improvements by closing tax loopholes – something many Republicans view as a tax hike.
- Trade promotion authority: Mr. Obama actually has the support of Republican leaders when he asks for the ability to fast-track major trade deals, although he’ll have to overcome opposition from within his own party to two pending free trade agreements with Europe and Asia.
- A major tax code overhaul: Many parts of the president’s 2015 agenda, such as providing two free years of community college and expanding access to child care, would be partially financed by closing tax loopholes. The president wants to end the practice of allowing wealthy Americans to pass on their appreciated assets to heirs tax-free, increase capital gains taxes on the top 1 percent of income earners, and impose a fee on financial firms bearing a heavy debt load. Republicans have criticized these as tax increases, and entirely different from their idea of reforming the tax code.
- Authorization for the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday, using an alternate name for the group. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated that Congress will consider such a proposal – once the president sends over a bill.
- End the embargo against Cuba: Mr. Obama took the first step toward opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, but only Congress can fully lift the trade embargo and travel ban against the island nation. And a few powerful senators have pledged to fight the president tooth and nail to prevent that.
- Cybersecurity legislation: In the lead up to the State of the Union, the president called for legislation to protect consumers online and improve corporate cybersecurity. Both proposals are based on bills Congress would need to pass.
- Close Guantanamo Bay: The administration has been steadily transferring prisoners out of the prison, but it still requires an act of Congress to formally close. Mr. Obama said he will “not relent” in his determination to shut it down – but years of asking hasn’t softened Republican opposition
Requests for the business world:
- Invest in the workforce: The president chided CEOs for the rising inequality in the United States. “To give working families a fair shot, we’ll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest,” he said.
- Offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships: The president praised CVS and UPS, who companies that offer their workers a chance to further their education, and encouraged more businesses to follow their lead.
- Hire veterans: This is one of the key projects first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden have championed throughout the last several years, and is partially dependent on private companies. The president underscored that message Tuesday: “To every CEO in America, let me repeat: If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done, hire a veteran,” he said.