WASHINGTON — President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday will likely be the first big marker in a potential year-long fight over, not the hearts and minds, but the pocketbooks of America.
Economic issues like income inequality, college affordability and the minimum wage are expected to take center stage in Obama’s speech.
We’ve seen a handful of skirmishes over these topics so far this year. Leading Republicans — most recently Rep. Paul Ryan — have pitched plans to help the poor and fight poverty. Democrats, including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, have pushed to restore a now month-long lapse in unemployment aid, and used it as an attack against Republicans. The White House held an affordability summit with college presidents this month, and Democrats around the country have long been girding for a fight over the minimum wage.
With its blueprint-like outline of the president’s 2014 agenda, the State of the Union will start, in earnest, politicking in an election year sure to be stuffed with it — and it will be aimed, as usual, at middle-class voters. Expectations for what a polarized Congress can actually accomplish are so low that the speech is an especially important messaging device for Obama and congressional Democrats.
They’re banking on it resonating in places like Minnesota. The state’s minimum wage is $7.25, well lower than what Democrats want. Minnesota’s average college graduate leaves school with, by some counts, $31,400 in debt, among the highest totals in the country. More than 14,000 Minnesotans have lost long-term unemployment insurance in the last month, and Democrats are going to make a mad scramble to convince voters it’s all Republicans’ fault. And it all starts on Tuesday night.
In that sense, the State of the Union is less a blueprint for lawmakers than a choose-your-own-adventure storybook. Obama likely will call for a debt-limit increase, and lawmakers will offer two concurrent talking points: Democrats will want a clean increase, while Republicans demand concessions, like approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans will say they’re fine with extending unemployment aid as long as it’s paid for with spending cuts; Democrats could offer up tax increases, or at least argue to revive stalled negotiations in the Senate.
There are likely to be contrasts within the parties as well. Both Democratic and Republican leaders think an immigration deal is possible this year, but the GOP rank-and-file is likely to dictate what path the House will take. Mainstream Republicans like Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen have said they could support some type of immigration reform, while conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann have opposed anything that provides citizenship to undocumented immigrants. There will be two competing immigration arguments within the GOP on Tuesday regardless of what Obama says in his speech (the party is going on a retreat later this week to hash out its 2014 agenda, immigration included).
Along those lines, most Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, but, like in Minnesota, they’re going to disagree on how much and in what way. The going rate on Capitol Hill is $10.10, up a dollar from what Obama asked for last year, though Republicans probably won’t accept that.
Some Democrats will push for an increase and, upon failure, call it a day. But others, like Rep. Keith Ellison, have said Obama could act on his own to raise the wage, for at least a subset of workers — those employed by federal contractors.
Warning to lawmakers
It seems unlikely Obama would make such an explosive announcement as that in his State of the Union. But the White House says he’s going to warn lawmakers he will use executive action to bypass Congress this year if it won’t adopt his agenda.
“When American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser, wrote in a Saturday letter to the White House email list, highlighted for reporters by the press office.
Obama will fill in the details on Tuesday. He will inevitably spark a flurry of praise and criticism ahead of a year sure to be filled with it, and lawmakers will get to choose what reaction works best for them.
It’s almost like: “To applaud the president for helping the middle class and taking a stand against congressional intransigence, turn to page 93 … To lambast Obama for expanding government and usurping power from the Congress, turn to page 105 … ”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry