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State of the Union Address: President Barack Obama Attacks Income Inequality, Mitt Romney Squirms

Posted on the 25 January 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
State of the Union address: President Barack Obama attacks income inequality, Mitt Romney squirms

President Barack Obama, July 2011. Photo credit: Geoff Livingston

President Barack Obama used his third State of the Union address to attack income inequality and attempt to set the tone for his re-election bid. In the national televised address to Congress, Obama flagged up signs of an US economic recovery and called for a higher taxes on the wealthy – something Republican presidential nominee hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are fiercely opposed to.

Obama made a renewed call for the Buffett rule – a principle that millionaires should not pay a lower tax rate than typical workers. Specifically, he said that not only billionaires but all those earning $1 million or more a year should pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” he said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by”, said Obama, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Other measures set out in the address included tax reforms to make it less attractive for US companies to transfer jobs overseas, allowing homeowners with privately held mortgages to refinance at lower interest rates, and a new trade enforcement unit dedicated to deterring unfair practices by rival economies, reported the BBC. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, delivering the Republican Party’s response to Mr Obama’s speech, called it “pro-poverty”. He said: “No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favour with some Americans by castigating others.” 

Not enough meat. An editorial in The Washington Post said that the address was “full of soaring rhetoric” but skipped over “some major challenges.” The newspaper adjudged that the president’s “biggest new idea was attaching a number to his previously articulated ‘Buffett Rule’” for it sets out a politically useful contrast” between Obama and Romney. Although it is “not a fleshed-out proposal that the administration expects, for example, to produce as a line item in the forthcoming budget”, The Post said Obama “is right to take on the unlevel and distorting playing field of a code that taxes ordinary earned income at a much higher rate than investment income.” On the threat posed by the federal deficit, the ‘paper lamented that Obama “did not go beyond a rhetorical nod.” The Post was similarly critical of Obama’s foreign policy statements: “He vowed that America would remain (borrowing President Clinton’s phrase) the one ‘indispensable’ nation, even as he cuts a half-trillion dollars from the military budget. The president did not hint at any significant foreign policy initiatives for the coming year; even on Iraq, he failed to discuss future relations with that strategic oil producer, which has headed toward renewed internal conflict since the last U.S. soldiers pulled out.”

Obama right to go hard (or he’ll go home). In an editorial, The New York Times said, “after a rough start to 2011, economic numbers have improved” and Obama was right to adopt a “steadily more assertive” demeanor in his address. The newspaper noted that Obama “sounded many of the same themes as last year, but his tone was sharper and he was far more willing to apportion blame, particularly singling out the financial industry for its excesses and politicians who are still determined to defend tax cuts for the rich and undo desperately needed financial regulations.” “Over the last year, Americans have become more aware of the deep inequities in the economy and of the government’s responsibility to act”, insisted the newspaper, which said “Obama deserves some of the credit for that, but it has a lot more to do with the unrelenting tough times and the efforts of Occupy Wall Street and other protests. What Americans want now is strong political leadership.”

Obama’s focus on inequality well judged. Gary Younge of The Guardian said that Obama’s speech was “an election speech, for an incumbent playing defence.” With this in mind, Younge said the speech should be “measured against two benchmarks: the traditional setpiece, highly choreographed, presidential, made for TV; and the speeches coming out of the Republican slugfest that just moved to Florida.” Younge said that “on the latter point” he has little to fear. Younge said Obama’s focus on inequality did multi-millionaire Romney no favours, and that Obama torpedoed Gingrich’s claims that he is “a craven figure on the world stage” by twice reminding Americans that Osama bin Laden was taken out on his watch. “For the ability to appear head and shoulders above his potential challengers, he can partly thank incumbency; the trappings of office on the night of the state of the union will cloak any president with gravitas. But he also has the benefit, when set against Gingrich and Romney, of looking and sounding like the only adult standing”, praised Younge. Turning to his performance, Younge said it was typically slick but, perversely, that might not actually work in his favour: “The fact that it was brilliantly delivered is both expected – and therefore discounted. Indeed, in the absence of substantive economic improvements for substantial numbers of people, his oratory can begin to work against him. His opponents can paint him as the hope-peddler who talks a good game, but tends to come up short.”

Reclaiming values. Mark Mardell, the BBC‘s North America editor said that “at the heart of this speech is a president, defiant. Defending the role of government and what he wants it to do.” “He was defiant too, about the different visions on offer in the election,” noted Mardell, who said Obama’s speech presented the election as a choice: “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well – while a growing number of Americans barely get by – or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What’s at stake, he said, are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values.” Mardell said Obama wants to frame the election as one in which Republicans “want to take back their country” and he and the Democrat party “wants to reclaim its values.”

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