Last night’s State of the Union will not take a place alongside Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race. It won’t be mentioned in the same breath as his 2004 speech in Boston. It didn’t even have the intellectual scope and narrative sweep of his 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. Rather, it was a laundry list of policies, along the lines of the State of the Unions Bill Clinton delivered late in his presidency. Which makes perfect sense. Obama is staffed by much of the same team that wrote those State of the Unions. And that formula worked. According to Gallup, the public preferred Clinton’s State of the Union speeches to those of any recent president.
In terms of policy, Obama offered at least five significant proposals. First, the Buffet tax, which was a vague gesture towards a policy in Obama’s September jobs speech, got fleshed out. It would act as a sort of alternative minimum tax for the very wealthy, raising the effective rate of taxpayers making more than a million dollars to at least 30 percent. It would be achieved, in part, by wiping out non-charitable tax breaks and deductions for high-earners. Notably, Mitch Daniels appeared to embrace a version of this idea in the Republican response, when he said the government should “stop sending the wealthy benefits they do not need, and stop providing them so many tax preferences that distort our economy.”
Second, Obama’s corporate tax reforms included a proposal for a global minimum tax. The details on this remain vague, but the basic idea is to dissuade multinationals from sheltering their income in low-tax jurisdictions — think Ireland, or the Cayman Islands — by making them pay a minimum tax on overseas income no matter where that income is held. As an example, let’s say the minimum tax rate was 10 percent. If GE is selling goods in Germany, and getting taxed at more than 10 percent, they would be free and clear. But if they were moving money to Ireland to try and pay a six percent tax rate, they would have to pay the difference between Ireland’s rate and the minimum rate — four percent, in this case — to the US Treasury.
Third, Obama proposed a new pay-for to try and persuade Congress to pass his infrastructure bill. In this case, he asked that half the savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are reinvested in US infrastructure.
Fourth, he asked Congress to pass a mass refinancing plan to help more homeowners take advantage of today’s record-low interest rates. Note that this is, in limited form, something Obama could do on his own through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Fannie and Freddie only guarantee a bit more than half of the homeowners who could benefit from a policy like this one. Congressional legislation could widen the potential universe of beneficiaries. The question is, if Congress doesn’t act, will Obama maximize what he can do on his own?
Finally, Obama took direct aim at the filibuster: He asked for both nominees to get an up-or-down vote within 90 days, and for Senate filibusters to require that legislators actually hold the floor and talk continuously, Jimmy Stewart-style.
Obama proposed much more policy, of course. You can see it all in Wonkblog’s policy-only edit of the speech. But the caveat to almost every idea he offered is the same: Most all of them require congressional cooperation. Cooperation the Obama administration is not likely to get. All tax bills, for instance, must originate in the House, and Speaker John Boehner is not known for his interest in raising taxes on the rich.
But what viewers of the State of the Union learned was that Obama has an agenda. An ambitious one, even. Whether they approve of it, and whether they approve of congressional Republican obstructing it, remains to be seen.
In terms of 2012 politics, the speech — and Mitt Romney’s tax returns — set up a contrast that will be made more explicit as the campaign wears on. When Obama was a candidate, he paid an almost 30 percent tax rate, and he believes folks as wealthy as him should pay even more. Romney, by contrast, is paying about half that rate, and he believes folks in his income bracket should pay even less. Quite a bit of the election, on the Democratic side at least, will be about making this contrast.