President Obama is expected to use his State of the Union address this evening to call on Congress to raise taxes on the nation’s wealthiest, which would generate revenue to fund tax breaks for low and middle-income households.
The speech is likely to launch a debate on taxes and the economy that will shape not only Obama’s legacy as president, but also the 2016 presidential campaign, which will soon gain traction as heavyweight contenders throw their hats into the ring. Other issues expected to dominate the upcoming presidential campaign include immigration and Wall Street regulation.
It may seem too early to discuss the 2016 campaign, but the wheels are already turning. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Hewlett-Packard’s CEO Carly Fiorina have both formed exploratory committees on the Republican side, and they may be joined soon by other popular candidates, such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie. On the Democratic side, everyone is waiting for official word from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while progressives are whipping themselves into a frenzy over a potential run from anti-Wall Street stalwart Elizabeth Warren, currently a Senator from Massachusetts.
Here’s a breakdown of the major issues that could be at the center of the debate as we ramp up to the voting next year.
1. Immigration reform
Late in 2014, President Obama set up immigration reform as the issue that is likely dominate not only the last two years of his office, but also potentially the race to replace him. He did so by putting forward a plan to change the immigration system via executive action rather than legislation. This has set up a fight between more traditional, corporate-friendly Republicans, such as Jeb Bush — who favor a policy change similar to the one Obama proposed — and those who oppose it and are more sympathetic to the Tea Party cause, such as Ted Cruz.
Immigration reform is important to business owners because it could mean significant changes to the way they can recruit and employ new workers. While the Republicans on the campaign trail fight out their differences, NYU Political Science Professor Patrick Egan doesn't see much change coming on the Hill: "I think the Republicans are in a pickle here," he said. Although most Americans want immigration reform, the Republicans on the Hill don't want to hand Obama a policy victory, which could help the Democrats in 2016, he said.
2. Wall Street regulation
While the Republican candidates will be duking it out over immigration policy, the Democrats will likely be talking a lot about a different kind of reform — reform on Wall Street. Fairly or not, presumed favorite Hillary Clinton is seen as a "Goldman Sachs-Democrat," with close ties and sympathies for the big banks. Egan notes that this won't sit well with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which is skeptical of whether or not a party considered progressive should be so intimate with big banks
"There is going to be somebody to the left of Hillary Clinton," he said, who would "create some sort of debate" about this issue. This is going to be especially important coming out of the Obama administration, as the financial and economic team for the past eight years has largely been made up of former bankers and insiders.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is widely considered the person most likely to take up this mantle, though she has said she doesn't plan to run. Clinton could also face heat in a general election from Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont, an independent and self-identified socialist who could run as a third party or independent candidate.
David Frum, writing for the Atlantic, notes that this could be the best possibility for Warren to shape the national conversation the way she wants to:
"If Elizabeth Warren did seek the Democratic presidential nomination, she’d seize the party and the national agenda," he wrote. "Rank-and-file Democrats seethe with concern about stagnant wages, income inequality, and the malefactions of great wealth. Left to her own devices, Hillary Clinton will talk about none of that."
3. Corporate taxes
On the spectrum of political topics, corporate tax policy is possibly the least sexy, but it will likely be a big deal for everyone on the Hill this year. And it's even an area where real progress could be made, Egan said. "There is the potential for some collaboration between Obama and congressional Republicans on the issue of corporate taxes," he said. "In the past, Obama has signaled that he thinks corporate taxes are too high." Both parties have surely noticed the ongoing trend of companies moving headquarters out of the U.S. for a "tax inversion," which could push them to action.
There are still potential pitfalls, though. Egan notes that even though Obama has shown some movement, it hasn't been enough for Republicans in previous attempts at corporate tax reform. If there is actually going to be some change in policy this year, someone is going to have to make a move, he said.
4. Jobs and markets
The job market and the general health of the U.S. economy have looked good for the past few months, with more Americans getting back to work and generally good news on the market. This is generally good for the incumbent president and his party, meaning Republicans are going to have to recalibrate their message.
"We're starting to see a situation where a lot of the measures are coming together to suggest that the economy is back," Egan said. "That requires Republicans to kind of change their tune on their criticism of Obama." Basically, if the economy is good, it's harder for the Republicans to run a campaign arguing Obama and the Democrats have run the economy into the ground. There are a few ways this can be done. One is to focus on narrower issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, rather than the economy as a whole.
The press is already jumping all over this issue, with various writers tackling the idea that Republicans won't be able to run on economic issues if things stay the way they are.
Oil prices are down. Way, way down. While there are plenty of quibbles about what effect this will have on the broader world economy, one expected result is lower gas prices — a huge positive for the pocketbooks of average Americans. Egan calls lower gas prices "an invisible stimulus that's in the pockets of middle class Americans that live in the suburbs."
This issue could help Obama in the ongoing fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Polls show as many as 65% of Americans support the building of the Pipeline, but President Obama has threatened to veto a bill passed by the Republican congress approving its construction. If gas prices are lower, energy is less of an issue, meaning Obama can veto without angering as may people.
6. Business baggage
A few potential candidates on the Republican side have some significant experience in the business world, notably former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Governor and two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Bush recently resigned from his board memberships, and Romney's history with Bain Capital and his comments about the auto industry were heavily scrutinized in the 2012 election. Will this be a real concern for these candidates, or is this something that voters don't actually care about?
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor notes that Bush's off-shore private equity funds could become a "political headache" (as of Nov. 27, Bush was named chairman and manager of private equity fund BH Global Aviation).
"The question becomes whether somebody challenges the prominent candidates" with business ties, Egan said. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, has been a public servant for a long time. If he were to get into the race, Egan thinks he could make hay going after Bush and Romney for their corporate connections.