President Obama will deliver his penultimate State of the Union address tonight at 9 p.m. EST. He is expected to discuss the economy, education, and trade, among other issues, and he will unveil a new tax proposal that will call for higher taxes on the wealthy to fund tax cuts and other benefits for the middle and lower classes.
Wall Street should pay particular attention to the speech, as the president is expected to announce a seven basis point tax on liabilities of banks with more than $50 billion in assets. The business community should also keep an eye out for mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that the Obama Administration is negotiating between a dozen Pacific Ocean nations including Japan, Vietnam, and Australia. The agreement is purported to relax trade barriers and harmonize regulations, but Congress has yet to approve a process for negotiating the deal, which is referred to as trade promotion authority.
While there is significant Democratic opposition to approving trade promotion authority, a provision that would subject the final deal to an up-or-down vote by Congress with no amendments, the new Republican majorities appear to be inclined to work with the president on this issue.
Here is a live analysis of the speech as delivered:
President Obama began his speech on a triumphant note, saying that 2014 was a “breakthrough year for America” in which the economy added more jobs than in any year since 1999, and that the unemployment rate is lower than it was immediately before the financial crisis.
While these are all true, statistics can be misleading. The unemployment rate might be a low 5.6%, but the jobs that have been added since the recession haven’t been high paying, while many folks of working age have left the labor force altogether and aren’t counted by the Labor Department as unemployed. This suggests the labor market has a way to go before it reaches pre-recession strength.
A Wounded Middle Class
Though the economy may be on the upswing, the president contended that the gains of American economic growth aren’t being shared by everyone. He argued that we need to “restore the link between hard work and opportunity for every American.”
In this middle section of the speech, Obama unveiled his plan to cut taxes on the middle and lower classes, especially for families with two working parents and children. He also asked Congress to pass laws raising the minimum wage, requiring equal pay for women, and that companies give every worker seven days per year in sick leave.
The president continued with a proposal to make community college free for some Americans noting that 2 out of every 3 new jobs created need some sort of post-secondary education. He noted that the State of Tennessee, a state run mainly by Republicans, has had success providing free community college for its citizens.
This second section of the speech is Obama at his most populist — challenging those Congressmen who refuse to vote to raise the minimum wage that if they think they can raise a family on less than $15,000 per year, that they should try. Otherwise, he posited, they should simply vote to “give the hardest working Americans a raise.”
Such talk won’t win the president any new friends on the red side of the aisle, but one can see the political appeal of this rhetoric.
Taking another jab at Republicans, the president argued that “instead of building a single pipeline” we should invest heavily in infrastructure to create American jobs and help American industry compete with the rest of the world. The “single pipeline” reference was obviously a nod to the Keystone Pipeline that would send oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, which the president has opposed for environmental reasons, but Republicans contend would bring necessary jobs to the U.S.
President Obama briefly mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership — one of the few references in the speech that got both Vice President Biden and Speaker John Boehner applauding behind him. He couched the deal, however, as one that would help America, rather than China, “set the rules” for trade in the new economy while at the same time “protecting American workers.” On this issue, it’s the left the president has to win over, as many Democrats are worried that a new trade deal would simply benefit multinational corporations while subjecting American workers to more unfair competition abroad.
At the same time, economists estimate that the deal could bring tens of billions of dollars in output per year to the American economy, while boosting the economies of our trade partners as well.
It will come as little surprise that the president didn’t linger on how he would plan to pay for new tax breaks and benefits for the middle and lower classes, but he did argue for closing loopholes on corporations that “ship American jobs overseas,” and preventing wealthy Americans from avoiding taxes on inheritances. That last point is a reference to President Obama’s desire to end the ability of heirs to pay taxes on assets they sell on a “stepped-up basis.” That means, for instance, that if you sell a house you inherited from your parents, you only pay tax on the appreciation of that asset from the time you inherited it, while the appreciation before inheritance is left untaxed. The president wants to close this so-called loophole.
The president’s tax plan as outlined on his website also includes a plan to raise the capital gains and dividends tax for high-income workers as well as a new tax on the liabilities of the nation’s largest financial institutions.