The State of the Union is the president’s opportunity to lay out his vision for what Congress can and should try to achieve in the next year.
In the past few weeks, President Barack Obama has already laid out detailed plans for two of his top agenda items, gun control and immigration reform — legislative issues about which he spoke passionately about during the State of the Union, calling on Congress to give gun control a vote and send him a comprehensive immigration reform bill "in the next few months ... let's get this done."
But the president also introduced a series of new policy proposals that could have a significant effect on Nevada residents and workers. While we won’t have details on the exact structure and cost of many of these proposals affecting education, energy, health care and other parts of the economy until Obama releases his budget request later this month, this lineup of the top five is a guide for Nevadans who want to know what to look out for from the White House in the months to come.
Jobs and the economy are still the chief concern of the nation and were the chief preoccupation of the president’s speech, in which he promised to create jobs for the middle class without adding to the deficit.
“Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation,” Obama said. “How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
The plan he laid out to answer those questions weaves its way through each of the headings that follow. But for starters, Obama called for new investment in manufacturing, which he wants to organize around the country in a series of hubs, following the example of Youngstown, Ohio, where last year, the Obama administration created a “manufacturing innovation institute” to turn old structures into thriving, job-creating enterprises.
“There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns,” Obama said, calling for Congress to approve plans for 15 more of these hubs across the country. He did not specify which communities he would recommend for the special attention.
While the targeted manufacturing initiative won’t necessarily reach every would-be American working community, Obama advocated another jobs-focused policy that certainly will: A rise in the minimum wage to $9 by 2015.
“A full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line,” Obama said. “That’s wrong.”
The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
“Here’s an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on,” Obama said.
One of the foremost job sectors the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have touted in Nevada is the energy sector. Though there is no gas in the ground, Obama and Reid have taken great pains to prove that solar plants, wind farms, and geothermal plants can be a viable, job-producing industry in the state.
“Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year — so let’s drive costs down even further,” Obama said. “As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”
But growing the renewable energy sectors depends on investments — and while Obama has taken many executive actions in the last few years to help energy production and diversification, Congress hasn’t been able to find enough middle ground to tackle an energy bill.
“After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years,” Obama said. “We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar — with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it.”
In the State of the Union, however, Obama did not expend much effort trying to play to the center. Instead, he made the case that the economy and the Earth demanded investments in cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy, and concerted action on climate change, now.
“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” Obama said.
“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago,” he added, invoking the memory of a cap-and-trade that has failed to pass Congress, and became a radioactive talking point Republicans used on the campaign trail, in an attempt to discredit Democrats on energy.
Even Obama, however, wasn’t convinced that his words would move Republicans — who have as a party, favored traditional carbon-based forms of energy as the realm for economic growth — on board. But he offered a back-up plan.
“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he said. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
In Nevada, the chief economic drag is still the housing sector, which has been slow to recover from the worst throes of the recession. While federal policies have helped somewhat, Nevada’s hardest-hit homeowners have proven the nation’s most challenging to save, and home purchases have not yet reached the rates necessary to bring about a true recovery.
“Even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no,” Obama said. “That’s holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it.”
Obama urged Congress to pass a pending bill to give “every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates.”
“What are we waiting for?” Obama said. “Take a vote, and send me that bill ... Let’s streamline the process, and help our economy grow.”
While Obama’s administration has rolled out expansive education initiatives, including their flagship Race to the Top and Turnaround Schools programs, education has escaped congressional attention in the last several years. In his State of the Union address, Obama offered three initiatives — at the pre-school, secondary, and post-secondary levels — to get matters moving again.
Obama called for a federal-state partnership process to make sure “every single child in America” had the opportunity to attend pre-school.
“Fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program ... For poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives,” Obama said. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
He also proposed establishing incentives for high schools to add vocational training courses in technology, computer sciences, engineering, and math, to make high school graduates more hireable upon graduation.
“We need to give every American student opportunities like this,” Obama said. “The skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”
Finally, Obama proposed a restructuring of the federal review process for financial aid, as a way of making post-secondary educational opportunities available for more students. Under his proposal, Congress would change the Higher Education Act, “so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid,” Obama said.
Obama announced that his administration would also release a “College Scorecard” Wednesday, so parents can compare schools to find out “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”
Medicare was hotly debated during the election season, as politicians warned about the need to reform the program while others drew lines in the sand in the name of senior citizens, who reside in Las Vegas in some of the highest concentrations in the nation.
During his State of the Union address, Obama opened the door to Medicare reform, gently urging naysayers that “those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms — otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.”
Part of those reforms, Obama said, should include a reduction of taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies, and increasing costs of coverage from wealthy seniors. They will also include changes to the government’s Medicare payments, which, Obama said, “should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive.”
Obama did set himself a threshold to meet: The same level of savings as envisioned by the Simpson-Bowles commission, which proposed, among other items, raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
Obama did not endorse that specific proposal during Tuesday’s speech. But he did not unequivocally rule anything out.
“I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement,” Obama said. “Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep — but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.”