Obama raises the stakes on inequality

Published 9:24 am Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

President Obama isn’t through yet. A refusal to be relegated to irrelevance — despite his Democratic Party’s drubbing in the 2014 election and the increasing buzz about those who might seek to succeed him two years hence ­— permeated both the tone and the substance of the president’s seventh-year State of the Union address Tuesday.

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That’s as it should be. One who has twice been entrusted with the nation’s highest office ought to be forthright in recommending national policy priorities, initiatives and changes — even if he knows his ideas aren’t popular with those in control of Congress. Americans expect as much. Indeed, Obama’s standing in opinion polls climbed in recent weeks after he took initiatives on immigration and Cuba that met with fierce GOP opposition.

What’s more, one who has had the whole nation as his constituency for six years is uniquely positioned to see hazards and opportunities ahead and summon a response.

We hope that’s what Obama did last night as he described an economic recovery that has left too many Americans behind, and as he described his ideas for helping them catch up. America’s working people are overdue for a raise. Average incomes have been stagnant since the late 1990s, and wages haven’t risen fast enough since the Great Recession to beat inflation. Improving their chances to get ahead should be a top national policy aim.

Several of Obama’s policy prescriptions are in keeping with America’s faith in education as being key to opportunity and with its belief that work should pay. The case for free community-college tuition echoes the case for free high schools made 125 years ago. Paid sick leave, a richer tax credit for child care, and opportunities for more employees to save for retirement would encourage work and make it financially “workable” for more families.

While Republicans may quarrel about government’s rightful role in making such prescriptions, or about whether they are the most effective means to desirable ends, we suspect that their biggest objection will be with Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on affluent Americans to pay for them.

Conservative pundits say that calling for tax increases on capital gains, estates and financial institutions will only anger the new GOP majorities and make cooperation between the two branches of government less likely. We hope the new congressional majorities are not that easily offended, and that they will receive Obama’s ideas as an invitation to talk about tax reform. The U.S. tax code needs an overhaul to better adapt it to today’s economy and the nation’s needs.