Challenges facing Obama and his wish list

Barack Obama said his plans would not increase the US deficit. photograph: reuters

Barack Obama said his plans would not increase the US deficit. photograph: reuters

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

IThe promises the US president made in his state of the union speech

State of the union speeches tend to be wish lists of policies and an opportunity for presidents to pitch bold legislative ideas, heaping pressure on the opposition to row in behind them from the “bully pulpit”.

Since the great presidential orator Woodrow Wilson re-established the practice of making the speech in person in 1913, presidents have used the opportunity to lecture Congress on how they see the US changing.

In this year’s state of the union speech, delivered on Tuesday night, US president Barack Obama presented his vision of a restored economy founded on a rejuvenated middle class. Obama may have goals to be a great legislative reformer like his Democratic predecessors Franklin D Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson, but they didn’t have one obstacle he must overcome – a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

High hopes

The 44th president listed some high hopes: increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 (€5.43) to $9 an hour by 2015; introducing a “market-based” climate change Bill; offering high-quality preschool education; closing tax loopholes for wealthy individuals and large companies; signing a Bill into law that puts 11 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship; and changing gun ownership laws.

Getting Congress to pass more spending plans will be tough, however, at a time when Republicans are crowing about the cost of federal entitlement programmes such as the Medicare plan and healthcare for pensioners, and when they want Obama’s plans for tax increases to be matched with spending cuts to balance the budget and reduce the country’s debt.

Obama said his plans would not increase the country’s already heavy deficit “by a single dime”, but did not explain how he would pay for them. The Republicans do not believe him.

The most senior House Republican, John Boehner, Obama’s arch-nemesis in recent bipartisan skirmishes, dismissed the minimum wage increase, saying that when you raise the price of employment, “you get less of it”.

Cost concerns

While Obama’s proposal for universal preschool was mostly lauded, conservatives expressed concerns about the cost, estimated at $10 billion a year or nearly 10 per cent of the education budget.

Obama will also struggle with his proposal for a cap-and-trade system to control emissions and tackle climate change.

A similar proposal passed the Democrat-controlled House in 2010 but died in the Senate.

Conservative Republicans are deeply cynical about whether change is required.

Senator Marco Rubio, pitted as the Republican Party’s saviour, said: “The government can’t change the weather.”

Obama will struggle to win congressional approval for his wish list in a deeply divided government where there are few moderates from either party that would support him and where the House of Representatives is dominated by conservative Republicans led by a weak speaker.