Live blog: Obama lays out broad agenda
President Obama finished a 71-minute speech having hit the high notes on a host of major policy initiatives -- from health care and financial reform to Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation. He acknowledged repeatedly that he and his party are in the midst of trying political times but sought to project determination to see through what he has started and continue pursuing ambitious goals. He criticized Republicans for their past record and their alleged obstructionism, but also called for bipartisanship moving forward. Was Obama's speech a success? Is he in any better position now, politically or substantively, than he was when the evening began? Sound off in the comments section below.
-- Ben Pershing
Who goes first on immigration reform? | 10:13 p.m.
Obama finished a section of his speech on civil rights by saying "we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system - to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nations."
But advocates of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress say they are waiting for more direct and specific cues from the White House before they press forward. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a compromise reform proposal, but lawmakers are typically wary of such a politically tricky issue in an election year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants to tackle the issue this year, but hasn't said exactly when. He is waiting for a cue from Obama. And the House doesn't want to act until the Senate does. So who will go first?
-- Ben Pershing
Obama calls for repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' | 10:13 p.m.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."
In response, the Human Rights Campaign will launch its "Voices of Honor" campaign on Wednesday, with plans to mobilize veterans and build campaigns in states with lawmakers that will be critical to final votes on a repeal in the House and Senate.
"The Commander in Chief sent a clear message tonight that in a time of war, what matters is that our men and women get the job done -- not whether they're gay or straight," HRC President Joe Solmonese said Wednesday night.
"Our country simply cannot afford this discriminatory law that hurts military readiness by denying patriotic men and women the opportunity to serve," Solmonese said.
Obama lauds progress in Iraq and Afghanistan | 10:13 p.m.
"In Afghanistan, we are increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home. We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans - men and women alike. We are joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitment, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose."
"Increasing troops" does not quite explain that President Obama has boosted troops by more than 50,000 since he became president, bringing total U.S. troops to 98,000 and total allied troops to 138,000. This number actually tops the 110,000 forces the former Soviet Union had in Afghanistan in the 1980s--and Obama soon will have more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than former president George W. Bush ever had in the two theaters. Obama's claim that "we are joined by allies and partners" does not mentions that the contributions from those allies have fallen far short of expectations.
Many experts would dispute Obama's claim that Afghan forces can "begin to take the lead in July of 2011." The president has said that that is the date when U.S. troops in the current surge will begin to come home, but few believe the ill-equipped, ill-trained and large illiterate Afghan forces will be in position to take charge so quickly.
Obama's mixed record on diplomatic outreach | 10:10 p.m.
"These diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of these weapons. That is why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions - sanctions that are being vigorously enforced. That is why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated. And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences."
President Obama skips over lightly the fact that his efforts to engage rogue nations have largely fallen flat. North Korea last year tested a nuclear weapon and tested missiles, and Obama has been unable to coax it back to six-nation disarmament talks. And Iran has proven deeply disappointing to administration officials. Obama issued an unusual message on Persian New Year, wrote two letters to the Supreme Leader and made a bold offer to assist Iran with a ailing medical research reactor. Yet his outreach to end three decades of estrangement has been greeted with indifference or scorn by Tehran's leaders. Obama claims the "international community is more united" but does not mention that China, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, is highly skeptical of new sanctions.
Obama calls for unity against foreign threats | 10:01
"So let's put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough. Let's reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values."
The reference to "schoolyard taunts" is a subtle shot at former vice president Richard Cheney, who has been criticizing Obama since the start of his administration for banning torture, promising to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and disregarding the phrase "war on terror."
Obama does not mention that he failed to meet his goal of closing Gitmo within one year -- something he touted when he addressed a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009, shortly after he took office.
Debt commission faces uphill task, battle | 10:01 p.m.
"That's why I've called for a bipartisan, Fiscal Commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The Commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline. Yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I will issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans."
A commission created by executive order has huge credibility problems, even among Democrats who support the idea. To date, Obama and House leaders have been unable to assure deficit hawks that the recommendations of a presidentially-appointed committee would be given an up-or-down vote in Congress.
A larger problem is the threat by key Republicans to boycott the panel. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), an ardent advocate of a fiscal commission, has derided a presidentially-appointed panel as little more than an effort to give Democrats political cover on the deficit in the runup to this fall's elections. No matter the form of the commission, it would not make its recommendations until after the elections, and lawmakers would not have to take a position on potentially painful tax hikes and spending cuts in popular social programs until the end of this year.
Obama spending freeze could have limited impact | 9:53 p.m.
"Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. We will continue to go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can't afford and don't work. We've already identified $20 billion in savings for next year."
Obama's spending freeze effects only about one-seventh of the nation's $3.5 trillion budget. It would save only about $15 billion next year and only about $250 billion over the next decade. His line-by-line savings -- which are subject to congressional disapproval -- might add another $20 billion.
Compare those numbers to this year's projected budget deficit of $1.35 trillion, and to the forecast of deficits in excess of $9 trillion over the next decade and you can see why many observers call these proposals mostly symbolic. They would do nothing to restrain the biggest drivers of the national budget deficit, the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. However, cutting government spending is a winner politically and probably a necessary move for Democrats who are going to have to start talking about raising taxes if they are serious about deficit-reduction.
Obama argues to eliminate tax cuts to combat deficit | 9:51 p.m.
"But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, investment fund managers, and those making over $250,000 a year. We just can't afford it. "
These ideas are retreads from last year's budget, which never saw action in Congress. Obama has proposed eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and taxing the income of hedge fund managers at the higher income tax rate rather than the lower capital gains rate. He has also vowed to permit the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration to expire to families who make over $250,000 a year.
While lawmakers have not moved on the first two proposals, they are likely to proceed with the third. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of this year, and Democrats have made clear that families earning more than $250,000 and individuals earning more than $200,000 will pay higher taxes on income and capital gains in 2011.
Obama criticizes Supreme Court decision on campaign finance | 9:44 p.m.
After discussing other government reform proposals, Obama wades into the subject of campaign finance by addressing the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court:
"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."
While Democrats and government watchdog groups were dismayed by the Citizens United decision, there has been little consensus on what, if anything, opponents of the ruling can do on the legislative front to reverse its effects. But the specific issue Obama referenced Wednesday -- whether the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations can spend money on American election campaigns -- is all but certain to be the subject of action in Congress. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has said "we cannot allow foreign interests to spend millions of dollars to influence our nation's elections in ways that further their agendas at the expense of our citizens."
There is some debate within the campaign finance community over which foreign entities are already prohibited from spending on U.S. elections by existing FEC rules, and whether the Citizens United ruling really opens the floodgates on that front the way some critics claim. Regardless, Democrats openly admit that they like the politics of this issue and are eager to bring it to a vote and force Republicans -- most of whom cheered the Citizens United ruling -- to pick a side.
-- Ben Pershing
Obama takes on higher ed | 10:26 p.m.
"And it's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs -- because they too have a responsibility to help solve this problem."
This is a brief but unmistakable shot across the bow that will surely make college administrators across the country sit up straight. After years of focusing federal financial aid efforts simply on helping students afford the rising cost of tuition, the government has in recent years started putting pressure on college administrators to make more of an effort on their end to restrain cost increases. But the powerful higher education lobby has so far resisted any legislation or regulation to codify limitations on tuition increases or greater disclosure of college costs and outcomes. And in the absence of new legislation or regulations, it is quite possible that any increases in federal financial aid that the administration is able to secure will simply give colleges and universities more leeway to further raise their prices without fear of losing students.
"And let's tell another one million students that when they graduate, they will be required to pay only ten percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after twenty years - and forgiven after ten years if they choose a career in public service."
Given the audience Obama is addressing, it's worth asking -- which jobs would fall under the umbrella of "public service?" Would Congress pass a bill saying you can get your student loans forgiven for serving in Congress? How about president? Or education secretary?
-- Ben Pershing
Obama credits stimulus with job creation, retention | 9:38 p.m. "Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed; 200,000 work in construction and clean energy. 300,000 are teachers and other education workers. Tens of thousands are cops, firefighters, correctional officers, and first responders. And we are on track to add another one and a half million jobs to this total by the end of the year."
There is no doubt that the hundreds of billions in stimulus money spent so far have kept thousands of public employees on the job and percolated through the economy to encourage the hiring of thousands more in the private sector. However, there is dispute about the precise numbers that the administration claims for the stimulus. Obama here is combining two different sets of numbers. The two million estimate for total jobs created or saved is the estimate produced by the macroeconomic formulas used by White House economists, using the total amount of money spent to gauge roughly how many jobs such a sum would likely produce. The figure is not far out of line with what outside economists have hazarded, but it is just an estimate. The 200,000 and 300,000 numbers for the specific types of jobs, meanwhile, is based on the actual reports that the administration has gotten back from recipients of stimulus money saying how they have used the money. Many questions have been raised about the reliability of these reports, and some economists and good-government advocates say the administration perhaps went a step too far in trying to come up with a precise job count, a nearly impossible endeavor that may have undermined the credibility of its broader effort to be transparent about how the stimulus money is being used.
Obama pushes energy bill | 9:34 p.m.
While the odds for passing a climate and energy bill in the Senate remain steep, President Obama offered concessions to Republicans on both offshore drilling and nuclear power Wednesday night in an effort to muster support for a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
"I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change," he said. "But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future - because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."
The president said he was committed to expanding domestic energy production, on what sounded like the GOP's terms. "That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."
Obama makes pivot to jobs | 9:31 p.m.
"People are out of work. They are hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay."
The House has already approved spending more than $150 billion on a jobs bill; the Senate is mulling a smaller package of about $80 billion that includes tax breaks for business, aid to cash-strapped state and local governments and a further expansion of the social safety net. While Democrats have yet to agree on how aggressively to pursue this initiative, it's clear that this legislation has emerged as their next big priority, a measure that holds out hope of providing a legislative victory in the absence of a health care bill.
Obama touts tax cuts | 9:28 p.m.
"Let me repeat: We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95% of working families. We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college. As a result, millions of Americans had more to spend on gas, and food, and other necessities, all of which helped businesses keep more workers. And we haven't raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person. Not a single dime."
Obama is correct: the administration did cut taxes for most families as part of the $787 billion stimulus package, which included more than $100 billion in "making work pay" tax cuts for lower and middle income families -- $800 for families and $400 for individuals. The reason that he has to emphasize the tax cut tonight, though, is that many people are unaware they received it, because it was spread out across people's paychecks instead of given in a single lump sum. The thinking was that this approach would make people more likely to spend the money, instead of squirreling it away. But the downside is that many taxpayers may not even be aware they got the tax cut.
Meanwhile, while there have not yet been any income tax increases passed, Obama has proposed raising income taxes on the wealthy in coming years closer to their levels under President Clinton. And he has come out for the proposal in the Senate's health care bill to tax health insurance plans above a certain threshold of value. While this would likely result in many employers shifting to lower-cost plans, some employees could see the tax passed on to them in the form of higher premiums.
Obama proposes tax increase on international corporations | 9:21 p.m.
"And to encourage these and other businesses to stay within our borders, it's time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs in the United States of America."
Obama refers here to his plan to raise taxes on international corporations by more than $200 billion over the next decade, a proposal that went nowhere in Congress after he laid it out last year. The idea is unlikely to win approval in an election year, either, and even some of the most liberal Democrats, such as House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) say they would only consider such a big tax hike on business in the context of comprehensive tax reform.
Obama touts economic recovery | 9:17 p.m.
"And after two years of recession, the economy is growing again. Retirement funds have started to gain back some of their value. Businesses are beginning to invest again, and slowly some are starting to hire again."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average has soared more than 30 percent above the depths reached last March, but President Obama avoids mentioning how this stock market rise has enriched Wall Street traders and banks. Instead he simply mentions "retirement funds" -- the 401k plans that now form the bedrock of many Americans' post-retirement piggybanks -- have gained back "some of their value." Politically, it does not help to celebrate Wall Street gains, especially when even Americans who have 401k plans have too little money in them to enjoy a secure retirement.
Obama touts economic recovery | 9:17 p.m.
"One year ago, I took office amid two wars, an economy rocked by severe recession, a financial system on the verge of collapse, and a government deeply in debt. Experts from across the political spectrum warned that if we did not act, we might face a second depression. So we acted - immediately and aggressively. And one year later, the worst of the storm has passed."
Officially, the recession has ended. And while the administration has absorbed much criticism for its economic stimulus package, there is wide agreement among independent analysts that the package -- now pegged at $862 billion by congressional budget analysts -- contributed mightily to the recovery. In addition, the hugely unpopular $700 billion bank bailout, enacted in the final days of the Bush administration, also appears to have helped to avert the collapse of the financial sector. And congressional budget analysts now say that effort is likely to cost taxpayers only $100 billion.
As angry as voters may be about the economy and 10 percent unemployment, there is much evidence that the U.S. government - under both Bush and Obama - did indeed avert catastrophe with its actions.
'We face big and difficult challenges' | 9:14 p.m.
"We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope - what they deserve - is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds and different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bill. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life."
The president's sentiments are undoubtedly shared by many Americans frustrated by the partisan gridlock that has come to characterize Congress. They imply that the Republicans have been obstructionists and they have stood in almost unanimous opposition to the president's major initiatives. But that view obscures a basic fact: Democrats run Washington. Even after Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown is sworn into the Senate, the Democratic caucus will enjoy a 59-41 advantage in the Senate. They also have a 78-member edge in the House. Of course, the now-routine threat of filibuster requires 60 votes to move legislation in the Senate, but that is an advantage Democrats have enjoyed for many months. Nonetheless, much of Obama's ambitious first-year agenda is unfulfilled. Intense partisanship is not a new feature in Congress, and it is a president's job to break through it, particularly when he has such a huge advantage. Consequently, it is fair to say that the congressional Democrats are also to blame for the presidentħ legislative problems.
HUD's Donovan pulls 'designated survivor' duty | 9:04
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan will serve as the Cabinet's "designated survivor," White House officials said moments before the speech.
This means Donovan will be shuttled away to an undisclosed location to assume control of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic event at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday night. (Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in London for a meeting on battling radicalization in Yemen, and then another, on Thursday on development and security in Afghanistan.)
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. served as "designated survivor" last year and was the third attorney general in recent history to stay away from a big speech.
Obama tackles earmarks | 8:47 p.m.
"I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform. You have trimmed some of this spending and embraced some meaningful change. But restoring the public trust demands more. . . . Tonight, I'm calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single website before there's a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent," Obama will say, according to excerpts.
This is a response to the general anxiety over government spending and the particular uproar over the $410 billion omnibus spending bill that Obama signed in March, a bill that had carried over from prior to his administration and that included about 8,500 earmarks -- spending for specific projects, outside normal appropriations -- worth a total of $7.7 billion. After assuming control of the House in 2006, Democrats instituted rules promising more disclosure of earmark requests, but only a minority of members are diligent about posting their requests.
Obama posted his requests as a senator from Illinois during the presidential campaign in 2007, and his administration made a show out of barring earmarks from the $787 billion stimulus package passed in February, over the objections of many House members who argued that they would have a better sense of how target money in their districts than federal and state bureaucrats who would otherwise be channeling the funds.
But he has in the past also warned against overstating the role of earmarks in driving federal spending. During one presidential debate, he responded sharply to John McCain's declaration that reducing earmarks would balance the federal budget, now at $3.5 trillion.
"Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused. . . . And he's also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests," Obama said. "But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion."
Tonight, in seeking to rebut Republican claims that he is a big spender, Obama is playing up the role of earmarks, without the perspective he offered against McCain.
Though House guidelines do call on members to post their earmarks online, Obama is correct to say that not all lawmakers do so. Some members have not complied with the rules, and others do disclose their requests but scatter them all over their official Web sites or use language that is difficult to understand. So the creation of a single site containing every request written in uniform fashion would indeed be a step toward increased transparency. As for the earmarks that actually do make it into appropriations bills -- as opposed to just requests -- those are already disclosed in one place by the Appropriations Committee, in a statement that accompanies each spending bill.
-- Ben Pershing
Obama proposes stricter rules for lobbyists | 8:44 p.m.
"And that's why we've excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs or seats on federal boards and commissions. But we cannot stop there. It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my Administration or Congress. And it's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office," the president will say, according to advance excerpts.
The administration has tightened restrictions on lobbyists, barring federal officials talking to registered lobbyists about projects funded by federal stimulus money, and blocking lobbyists from working for the administration or even from serving on hundreds of little-known federal panels. But some good-government advocates say the rules, while well-intended, have limited value and unintended consequences. Some Washington power brokers skirt the rules by simply declining to register as lobbyists, even though their day to day work is often hard to distinguish from lobbying. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for instance, works for a major Washington lobbying firm, Alston & Bird, but manages to technically navigate around the rules that would require him to register as a lobbyist. The declining tally of registered lobbyists ever since Congress passed lobbying reforms in 2007 suggests that many other lobbying firms have taken a similar approach, keeping as few as possible of their staff on the actual lobbyist rolls. Meanwhile, the rules have meant that the White House has had to turn away some well-regarded people who lobby on behalf of non-corporate causes, such as Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski.
And limiting how much lobbyists can give to candidates for federal office will not address the new dynamic created by last week's Supreme Court ruling, which would allow corporations to spend as much as they want on campaign advertisements. The ruling did not address limits on individual campaign contributions, which capped donations at $2,300 during the 2008 cycle. Even if all lobbyists are giving at the $2,300 maximum, that pales in comparison to the impact that a major corporation could have by spending millions on their own ads in a given election.
The way forward on health care reform? | 8:25 p.m.
"I will not walk away from these Americans. And neither should the people in this chamber," President Obama will say according to excerpts of the speech released by the White House.
Though Obama is signaling his intent to carry on with health reform, the campaign remains in tatters after last week's Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election. Shell shocked senators want the house to approve the bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve, along with a second bill with fixes that would need only 51 votes in the senate. House members are talking about dismantling the health care package and passing popular reforms, such as an end to the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption, piecemeal. Meanwhile, the white House is pondering the possibility of starting over with a scaled back bill that achieves a fraction of the measure that was so close to final passage.
Without further clarity from Obama on how to proceed, congressional Democrats have little hope of bringing the yearlong health debate to a final resolution.
-- Lori Montgomery
President Obama takes the podium on Capitol Hill tonight for his first state of the union address. Washington Post reporters who cover the president, Congress, politics and policy will be your guides to the action, offering live analysis and fact-checking starting at 8:30 p.m. ET.
State of the Union starts at 9 p.m.
January 27, 2010; 10:13 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency , Live Blog , State of the Union
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