Amid Rampant Inequality, State of the Union to Tout Economic Gains

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Amid Rampant Inequality, State of the Union to Tout Economic Gains

Obama likely to highlight progressive ideals and financial progress, but crisis not over for many

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on January 28, 2014. (Photo: Pete Souza/whitehouse.gov)

Despite continued financial hardship for many Americans in the face of the so-called economic recovery, President Barack Obama is widely expected to tout recent financial progress as a mark of his legacy in Tuesday's State of the Union address.

Observers say his anticipated remarks, set to begin at 9:00pm EST, are likely to highlight a lower national unemployment rate and progressive policy initiatives at a time when the financial crisis persists for low- and middle-class families, and threatens to worsen under proposed corporate-friendly trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Fast Track authority.

"[W]hile President Obama is hard at work preparing his biggest speech of the year, most families are hard at work stretching their budgets to make ends meet," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said on Tuesday.

"President Obama has accomplished a lot this past year... but that's not enough," Trumka said. "The president has to keep fighting to ensure that everyone has a job."

As NPR reporter Marilyn Geewax notes, despite some job growth in the past eight years, "2.8 million long-term unemployed workers haven't seen a paycheck in more than six months. ... [T]he homeownership rate was 69 percent in 2004; now it's just 64.4 percent."

Obama is reportedly seeking to galvanize support from Congress as he shifts slightly left of center for the last two years of his presidency, experts say. New legislative proposals like the populist-themed "Robin Hood" tax plan, introduced last Monday by mainstream Democrats, will be on the agenda for the State of the Union, along with community college expansion, net neutrality regulation, and wages.

And while this is welcome news to some, the president still has a long way to go to ensure continued economic recovery for those who are still struggling financially, particularly low-income and middle-class families, Economic Policy Institute president Lawrence Mishel said on Monday.

Raising the minimum wage to $12.50, supporting collective bargaining, and expanding tax breaks for low- and middle-income households are among those baseline initiatives, Mishel said. "[T]he ultimate solution to wage stagnation has to be to generate broad-based wage growth."

As Guardian reporter Dan Roberts points out, "Much of Obama’s challenge in the speech... lies in simultaneously convincing wealthier Americans that the recovery is solid enough to warrant a more redistributive approach, while convincing them that helping those on lower incomes climb the ladder is in the American tradition."

Likewise, passing more radical policy initiatives in Congress will be particularly difficult in a newly Republican-controlled Congress—but the issue is not so simple, journalist Dave Lindorff notes. Losing both the House and the Senate assured corporate-friendly Democratic lawmakers that they "don’t have to worry about being taken seriously" and can act like "the party of the people," Lindorff writes.

Critics say equally as important as what Obama does is what he does not do. Introducing new legislation to support low wage workers will have little effect if it is passed in conjunction with the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would lower trade barriers between the U.S. and 12 nations that make up 40 percent of the global economy, and in turn "drive up U.S. trade deficits and depress wages for U.S. workers," Mishel explains.

"I want to talk about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be taking away hundreds of thousands of jobs from young workers across America," said AFL-CIO member Victoria Fisher in a video message to the president Tuesday.

Further, Obama must back off implementing so-called Fast Track authority, which would grant him the power to negotiate trade deals like the TPP without input from Congress, workers and many Democrats say.

In the aftermath of the "worst financial crisis since the Great Depression... America is now really in a position to turn the page," Obama said in a preview of Tuesday's address.

But what does that rhetoric mean to critics who will be analyzing not just Obama's initiatives, but the president himself?

"Early on, the president defied the chorus of naysayers, especially as he pulled the economy back from the brink of catastrophe. His considerable success with health care reform will likely define the core of his legacy. But six years on, in many important ways, Barack Obama has become a figure of American disappointment," writes Boston Globe columnist and Suffolk University scholar James Carroll.

Carroll continues: "The Obama administration officially becomes lame duck now, and gridlock in Washington threatens as never before."

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