This agenda will be rife with what will sound like good ideas, but may remain just as ideas. Obama is facing the first Republican-controlled Congress of his presidency, and despite claims from both sides that they will seek compromise and common ground, the most aggressive plans Obama will articulate Tuesday may never reach the president’s desk.
Here’s what to expect from the 2015 State of the Union:
A highlight of the administration’s agenda is the proposal offering free community college for those enrolled in two-year programs, an initiative cut from the same cloth as federal efforts like the GI Bill and Pell Grants. While its $60 billion price tag – along with concerns of how a community college education will be valued if the program is successful – has drawn the ire of Republicans on the Hill, the proposal has at least started an earnest conversation about making a quality education affordable.
2. PAID LEAVE
Obama called on lawmakers this week to appropriate $2 billion to encourage states to require employers to offer new, paid family medical leave programs. The proposal also includes a push for legislation that would give federal workers an additional six weeks of paid parental leave. Neither measure has any chance of passing Congress.
3. CYBER SECURITY
Last month’s Sony Pictures hack was just the latest example of a major American corporation being targeted by cyber criminals. As attacks are becoming more high-profile, it would make sense for Obama to call for legislation that will make it easier for the government and businesses to share information about potential threats.
This is perhaps the most actionable agenda item, as both the White House and Congress appear to be on the same page. The only disagreement is – and will be – over how much information about Americans should be shared with the government as well as which agency should be gathering information. Independent cybersecurity experts, however, are not convinced that the proposed plan – in retrospect – could have prevented the attacks on Sony, and believe that information sharing between U.S. intelligence agencies and the private sector would only serve to further erode consumer privacy.
Obama’s other digital pitch, of expanding high-speed broadband Internet, is far less likely to make its way through the Hill. The administration wants to institute new loans to help expand access to rural communities and eliminate existing legal barriers to cable-market competition, and Republican opposition has ranged from cost concerns to outcry against over-regulation of private industry.
That said, Obama does not need congressional approval to enact this plan, and his real opposition will come from the individual states — who have the final say in whether community-based Internet providers can compete with companies like Time Warner and Comcast. That is why the president has urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to strike down state laws that restrict communities from building their own networks.
The White House’s plan to reduce fees on government-backed loans, a measure expected to save low- and middle-income homeowners nearly $1,000 per year, has received its fair share of criticism from Congress, who can actually do very little to prevent Obama from instituting the new rate structure — doing so falls well within executive purview. Congress could, however, threaten to withhold funding from Housing and Urban Development in the future.
The proposal also stands against concerted efforts between the administration and the GOP to separate the federal government and the mortgage industry (the president has spoken openly about phasing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for months). Obama’s actions may reflect pressure from his own party, as Democrats on the Hill have been advocating for government mortgage programs they see as a necessity for millions of Americans trying to enter the housing market.
The new Republican-controlled Congress gives Obama a window of opportunity to push through on pending trade negotiations with Europe and Asia. The two stalled agreements — the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) ad the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — could be given new life if Congress renews the Trade Promotion Authority needed to give Obama the ability to fast-track the negotiation process. As trade has long been a point of agreement between the administration and its Republican opposition, this may be one of the few successful items on the agenda.
In light of recent world events — Boko Haram’s mass killings in Nigeria, the al-Qaida attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, and increasing tensions in the Middle East — expect Obama to renew his call to Congress to update the authorization for use of military force against the new threat raised by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The 2015 State of the Union address begins at 9:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, January 20. The speech will be aired on many major television networks or visit www.whitehouse.gov/SOTU.