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Up Front

President Obama’s Pragmatically Progressive SOTU Speech

Isabel V. Sawhill

In his State of the Union address, President Obama made a passionate appeal to Congress to endorse an agenda that should have warmed the hearts of those who voted for him but which has little chance of being enacted, given the composition of the Congress. Raising the minimum wage, providing a high quality preschool experience to every child, enabling more families to refinance their mortgages, providing assistance to struggling communities, or creating new jobs are all worthy ideas. But it’s not clear how to pay for them or enact them in the current environment.

On fiscal issues, the president made a strong pitch for replacing the arbitrary cuts called for by the sequester with a balanced package including new revenues from tax reform and some modest cuts to Medicare, for example by means-testing benefits. He got some of his biggest applause when he said it was time to put the nation’s interest above that of one’s party.

As expected, the president spoke of climate change, immigration reform and gun violence. I was more surprised by the promise to bring the troops home from Afghanistan sooner than expected and to appoint a commission on voting rights. He also challenged Congress to put his proposals to a vote, suggesting that it is only in partnership with Congress that anything can be accomplished, and implicitly criticizing those who have blocked action in the past.

My sense was that what we heard was the president’s own values driving a pragmatically progressive agenda with much more confidence and backbone than we heard in the first term.

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