Obama Lays Out Ambitious Progressive Agenda in State of the Union Address

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Obama draws Hollywood praise for laying out liberal agenda that addresses social issues and business concerns, including legislation to fight cyber threats like the Sony hack.

In his sixth State of the Union Address Tuesday, President Barack Obama finally came out as the progressive chief executive so many of his Hollywood supporters believed they were campaigning for seven tumultuous years ago.

Heading into the final 24 months of his eight-year White House tenure, Obama tossed aside any hint of lame duck conciliation with the Republican majority in Congress and outlined an aggressive agenda focusing on income inequality and assistance to the middle class, most of it to be financed through higher taxes on wealthy investors and banks.

“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come,” Obama said. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

Laying out his agenda for the remainder of this term, Obama said: “Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”

While a variety of GOP lawmakers quickly denounced the president’s legislative agenda as “class warfare,” veteran Hollywood political advisors told The Hollywood Reporter that the address was bound to be well received in Hollywood. 

“There’s a lot here that the Hollywood progressives will love,” said Democratic political consultant Rick Taylor. "This is why we all voted for him six years ago. This is the man who we all expected the president of the United States to be. He makes all of us who believed in him believe in him even stronger."

Among the most eye-catching of the president’s proposals Tuesday were initiatives to make community college education free for all, an increase in the earned income tax credit for middle-class families, equal pay for women and a higher minimum wage, as well as expanding paid family leave for new parents and assistance in paying for child care. Obama would finance key measures by increasing the capital gains tax paid by wealthy investors and their heirs, as well as through fees on major financial institutions. 

Despite the affluence of most of his Hollywood supporters, Obama’s proposals will enjoy wide support in Hollywood, which has frequently been disappointed by the president’s caution and conciliatory middle-of-the-road governance. "Hollywood is somewhat unique in terms of being a socio-economically privileged group that does generally support higher taxes for the wealthy," noted Donna Bojarsky, a longtime political advisor in Hollywood.

In his hour-long address Tuesday, Obama said: "The verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix.”

He added: “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.”

In addition to the economic initiatives, Obama also expressed support for gay marriage, new environmental measures to stem global warming, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and a concerted effort in Congress to combat cyber-attacks in the wake of the Sony hacking.

“No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids,” he said. “We are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism. And tonight, I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children’s information. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable. If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.”

The president's comments drew immediate praise from MPAA chief Chris Dodd: "The Internet is a flourishing source for creativity and economic growth. And yet, as the devastating cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment reminds us, this incredible and connected digital space is also littered with sophisticated criminal actors intent on unsettling businesses, invading consumer privacy, and exposing competitive trade secrets and digital products."

Dodd added: "We fully support the President’s commitment to addressing this pressing issue and look forward to working alongside the Administration, Congress and all members of the online ecosystem to strengthen and secure the Internet for everyone.”

In a video posted on the White House website in advance of Tuesday’s primetime address to a joint session of Congress, Obama said his turn toward activism has been made possible by the end of the long financial crisis and its lingering aftermath. “Over the last six years, we have been weighed down by the legacy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” the president said. “And because of the incredible grit and resilience of the American people, America is now in a position to really turn the page. . .Now that we have fought our way through the crisis, how do we make sure that everybody in this country is sharing in this growing economy? How do we make sure that they have the tools to succeed?”

In part, Obama seems to have been emboldened by what appears to popular approval of the tough new go-it-alone course he has pursued since the Democrats’ disastrous performance in the midterm elections. Over the past month, his public approval rating has risen by nine points to 50% in the most recent ABC/Washington Post poll, nearly 20 points higher than that of the congressional GOP. Since he took unilateral executive action on immigration reform—something the Republicans have vowed to roll back—his approval rating among Latino voters has soared fully 15%.

There also is polling data suggesting widespread popular wariness of and outright opposition to Republican attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, weaken regulations on Wall Street passed in the wake of the financial meltdown, gut federal consumer protections and to further restrict reproductive rights.

Gauging the unpopularity of those measures—which Obama has indicated he would veto, if they come to his desk—the president also seems to be banking on the good feeling reflected in the highest consumer confidence numbers in 11 years and the decline in unemployment to below 6%.

Even if the Republican-controlled House and Senate turn their collective backs on all the proposals Obama put forward Tuesday, there’s a sense among Democrats, particularly in Hollywood, that the chief executive is setting the parameters of the debate in 2016.

“Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision,” Obama said. “How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws – of which there are many – but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

“I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.”