Tonight, President Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address, laying out another set of legacy-building policy proposals destined to die in the Republican-led Congress. The annual speech is mostly political pageantry—an applause-filled charade of air kisses and tearjerker cameos that Americans nevertheless watch on the off-chance that the president will say something interesting. But this year, thanks to the White House's unusual decision to tell us everything Obama is going to say before he says it, you have been mercifully relieved of this obligation.
Robbing the event of its usual suspense, Obama and his staff spent the past week previewing the plans outlined in tonight's speech. "I figured why wait for the State of the Union?" the president said at an event announcing a new education initiative in Tennessee last week. "Why stand on formalities? Let's get the ball rolling."
Assuming you have better things to do tonight than watch people in suits shake hands, we've broken down the key elements of tonight's speech so you won't miss anything:
According to Obama's advisors, the main theme of tonight's speech is the "middle-class economy." On that front, the president has good news to report. The financial crisis is over, unemployment is down to 2004 levels, and growth was up 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014. And as the economy has improved, so have Obama's approval ratings, bouncing back to 50 percent for the first time since May 2013. Sure, wages remain mostly stagnant, so most Americans have yet to feel the benefits of the economic comeback, but for the White House at least, the State of the Union looks pretty good.
Despite this rosy outlook—and perhaps because of it—Obama's speech will focus mainly on proposals aimed at addressing income inequality and boosting the middle class. The centerpiece of that is a set of tax hikes for the wealthy that raise the top capital gains tax rates for couples who make more than $500,000, eliminate the "trust fund loophole," and impose a new fee on big banks. The increased revenue would offset tax breaks for middle-class and low-income Americans, including a new $500 "second-earner credit" for working married couples, and extending credits for childcare and education.
Free Community College
The other major proposal Obama will lay out is a plan to offer two years of free community college to all Americans. According to the White House, the program could benefit up to 9 million students and help to close the "skills gap" that leaves jobs unfilled for lack of qualified workers. The plan, based on a free community-college program offered in Tennessee, would be paid for by a combination of federal and state grants, although administration officials have been fuzzy about how much it would actually cost and where that money would come from.
Fresh off of the very public Sony hack and other recent high-profile corporate data breaches—not to mention the embarrassing attack on US CENTCOM's social media accounts —the White House is under a lot of pressure to do something about cybersecurity. To that end, Obama's State of the Union speech will include new proposals aimed at beefing up the nation's cyber protections, including a federal program that would encourage private companies to share information about threats with federal agencies. But while the proposals will likely sound good in the speech tonight, they have also come under fire from data security experts, who say the new rules could weaken or even criminalize academic and private sector research into cyber vulnerabilities.
With two years left in office, Obama is running out of time to establish his legacy on climate change. Which is why he will announce that his administration is imposing new regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, aimed at a 40 to 45 percent reduction from 2012 levels by 2025.
The 2016 Election
As with his previous State of the Union plans, most of the proposals Obama plans on laying out tonight probably won't make it out of the Oval Office. Regardless of the bipartisan platitudes that will inevitably make their way into this year's speech, the reality is that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, and they are unlikely to take up anything the president proposes, least of all tax hikes on the wealthy and new federal spending programs.
Nor does Obama expect them to. Rather, as The Atlantic's David Frum points out, the ideas Obama floats tonight are actually targeted at his own party heading into the 2016 election, laying out a progressive agenda that Hillary Clinton—and any other potential Democratic presidential contender—will have to define themselves around for the next two years.
If, despite the spoilers, you still want to see the whole dog-and-pony show, it starts at 9 pm. You can watch the White House's enhanced livestream, complete with live data and infographics, below. Read along with the transcript here.
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