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Has Obama Set the Message for the 2016 Campaign?

President Barack Obama greets lawmakers ahead of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

President Barack Obama greets lawmakers ahead of his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington.

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama told U.S. lawmakers something they already know:

“I have no more campaigns to run … I know because I won both of them.”

Mr. Obama cannot run for president again – U.S. presidents may serve only two terms. But some observers say his most recent State of the Union message sounded like a campaign speech.

Larry Sabato directs the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“There was a direct connection between what President Obama said in the State of the Union address and what’s going to happen in 2016.”

Mr. Obama smiled and winked during his speech, even though he was talking before a Congress completely run by the opposition party. Republicans won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in last fall’s election.

But Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia says the president did not try to compromise with the Republicans. Instead, the president chose to give a speech that appealed to members of his own party, the Democrats.

“I think he has accepted the fact that he will get very little of his agenda passed by Congress in the next two years. So instead his proposals, which he knows the Republican Congress will reject, can become some of the Democratic platform for the nominee in 2016.”

It’s the middle class

One of the key ideas in the speech was about improving the position of the middle class. The Pew Research Center says a family of four is middle class if it earns between about $38,000 and $114,000 a year. Most Americans are part of that category.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a political observer at the American Enterprise Institute. He says the State of the Union speech is a clear sign that the politics of 2016 will be about which party better represents middle class economic hopes.

“Certainly the Democratic Party has an advantage on the question of which party better represents middle class economic interests. That is a very powerful advantage to have. But if the Republicans begin to compete on that question, which they have shown greater interest in doing recently, then I think it becomes an open question.”

In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama said he wants everyone to get a “fair shot” at what he called "middle class economics." He called for higher taxes on wealthy Americans. That tax revenue, estimated to be about $320 billion, would finance tax breaks for the middle class. It would also fund other proposals such as free tuition for community college students.

In addition, Mr. Obama called for a higher minimum wage for workers, equal pay for women, and paid sick and maternity leave.

Democratic Presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton tweeted about Mr. Obama’s proposals. She said they pointed a way to an economy “that works for all. Now all we need (is) to step up & deliver for the middle class.”

Republicans are talking about the middle class, too

Republican politicians are also talking about how to help the middle class. Newly-elected Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa gave the official Republican response to the State of the Union.

Ms. Ernst said Republicans will “propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending.” They want meaningful reforms, she said, “but not higher taxes like the President has proposed.”

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, responded on Facebook. “We need to create economic opportunity for every American,” he said, “especially middle class families and those trying to rise out of poverty.” Mr. Bush is considering running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

And even former Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been speaking about the middle class. Experts say Mr. Romney lost the last presidential election because voters saw him as a rich supporter of business. Mr. Romney spoke to Republicans in California earlier in January. “It’s a tragedy, a human tragedy,” he said, “ that the middle class in this country by and large doesn’t believe that the future will be better than the past.”

Republican House Speaker John Boehner spoke at a meeting with other House Republicans in mid-January. He talked about his priorities for this Congress. He said lawmakers need to pass, “common-sense solutions that will help expand opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses.”

Americans will not pick the next president for almost two years. But political observer Ramesh Ponnuru says both parties will spend the time talking about how more people can achieve the American Dream.

"I would say that the party that best convinces Americans that they’re on the side of middle class aspirations, and that they will help middle class people live out their dreams is the party that’s going to win."

America is not the only place talking about the middle class and inequality. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the anti-poverty group Oxfam presented their income inequality report. The report says that by next year the top one percent of the world’s population could own more wealth than the other 99%.

I’m Anne Ball.

Anne Ball reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

winked-v. closed and opened one eye quickly

compromise-v. give up on something you want to reach an agreement

revenue-n. money

maternity leave-n. time off to take care of a newborn child

nomination-n. choosing someone as a candidate

priorities-n. things someone cares about and things are important.

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