Fully half of last night’s State of the Union address was devoted to the economy. The other topics — foreign policy, climate change, an appeal for collegiality in Washington — were all minimized to make room for an extended discussion of the vital importance of what President Obama referred to as “middle class economics.”
In the past, Obama said, the United States has always taken steps “to make sure everyone gets a fair shot.” On Tuesday night he outlined a series of proposals to change the way the middle class gets a fair shot, proposing affordable child care, a higher minimum wage, free community college, and guaranteed sick days.
Is the middle class really in trouble?
Yes. The US economy has not been kind to low and middle-income families in recent decades. Families in the middle of the income ladder today earn roughly the same amount that they did 25 years ago while wealthier households have gotten a substantial raise.
Source: Census Bureau
Would President Obama’s proposals help?
Many of Obama’s proposals are well-suited to help workers and middle-class families. A higher minimum wage provides the most direct and obvious boost, but high-quality child care has the dual benefit of helping parents working to support their families and improving outcomes for kids.
President Obama also nodded, briefly, toward labor unions, saying, “We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice.” If that actually happened it could have a truly profound effect. There’s a strong historical relationship between the decline of labor unions and the growth of inequality.
Did he propose anything that would hurt the middle class?
It’s controversial, but the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute has argued that the trade agreements President Obama is attempting to finalize with European and Asian partners would likely reduce the wages of some US workers.
What else was in the speech?
Obama spoke on a great variety of ideas and projects, from tailored medical treatments and a manned Mars missions to the sanctity of voting rights and a reminder of the National Security Agency surveillance scandal.
And then, at the end, he issued a plea for sanity, respect, and dignity among politicians — not a desperate or dispirited plea but an optimistic one in the mold of “hope and change” that has defined Obama’s political career.
For a fleeting moment, it even sounded like we were listening to a private conversation between Obama and his audience of congresspeople. “Many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for,” Obama said, “arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fund-raising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”
There is “a better politics,” he assured his audience.
We shall see.
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