Agenda misses rural America; president doesn't touch on agriculture

Feb 15, 2013
by DTN

As he has in the past, President Barack Obama used his fifth State of the Union speech Tuesday night to again propose an aggressive agenda, but there was almost no emphasis on rural America.

In Washington, the president laid out a liberal-oriented agenda that included proposing to raise the minimum wage, emphasizing the need to address climate change and promote clean energy. The president advocated spending on infrastructure and education and passing immigration reform. He also continued his push on gun control.

Some rural lawmakers had hoped Obama would reference the farm bill in his remarks, but that did not happen. In talking about immigration reform in his speech, the president also did not mention agriculture, a key sector advocating for immigration overhaul.

Citing the president’s comments on climate change, a few farm and biofuel groups highlighted the potential of agriculture to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The president noted early on that he and Congress have cut projected deficits by $2.5 trillion over the next decade and are $1.5 trillion from reaching a point in which deficits are stabilized. Still, the president criticized the $1.2 trillion in “sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts” known as sequestration cuts that could go into effect over the next few weeks. Obama said those cuts would hurt defense and health care.

Instead, the president proposed higher taxes on wealthy people by getting rid of “special interest tax breaks” for the “wealthy and well-connected.” The president also called for simplifying the Tax Code and eliminating tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas.

“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit,” he said.

In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida shot back at the president and his allies by arguing that preventing tax increases does not mean Republicans only support the rich. Rubio noted he grew up in a modest neighborhood where he still lives.

“So Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors. Hardworking middle class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow the government. They want a plan to grow the middle class.”

Rubio added, “Raising taxes won’t create private sector jobs. And there’s no realistic tax increase that could lower our deficits by almost $4 trillion. That’s why I hope the president will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy.”

On trade, the president did cite the need to continue boosting exports by completing negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as a new proposal for Europe.

“I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union—because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Obama did not reassert his proposal in the 2010 State of the Union to double exports by 2015.

The president stressed that the country should do more to reduce greenhousegas emissions and focus more on renewable energy. He also challenged those who don’t believe in climate science.

“But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” Obama said. “Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods, all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen, were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science, and act before it’s too late.”

With that, the president called on Congress to “pursue a bipartisan, marketbased solution to climate change,” such as legislation worked on by Sens. John McCain, R-AZ, and Joe Lieberman, I-CT, in 2007. But the president said if Congress doesn’t act, he will push his cabinet to do more.

The president added he planned to accelerate work on natural gas, as well as speeding up permitting for new oil and gas production.

In an early response last Tuesday, the National Farmers Union (NFU) praised the president’s speech, citing that “Farmers and ranchers are leading the way in the clean energy revolution, providing feedstocks to advanced biorefineries and harnessing the wind and sun to power the country as well as their own operations,” NFU stated.

NFU added, “The president’s call for Congress to pass a market-based solution to climate change is also very encouraging. Extreme weather events like the current drought are hurting America’s farmers’ and ranchers’ ability to provide the nation with food, feed, fiber, and fuel. Given the right incentives, agriculture can play a significant role in combating climate change by being a part of the solution.”

Anne Steckel, vice president of federal affairs at the National Biodiesel Board, also said the biodiesel industry can play a role lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“Biodiesel is a practical, cost-effective and bipartisan solution that’s here today to address this problem,” Steckel said. “President Obama has already proven his strong support for American-made renewable fuels, and we think there is tremendous potential for increasing the role our industry can play.”

The president also proposed an infrastructure fund, “Fix-It-First,” that would focus on priority repairs such as highway bridges across the country.

The president also placed an emphasis on immigration reform that would include giving immigrants now in the country illegally an opportunity to earn citizenship. He called on Congress to pass a bill that also would reduce the bureaucracy for highly-skilled foreign workers to enter the country.

“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts,” he said. “Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

In perhaps a surprise, the president also called for raising the minimum wage for full-time workers to $9 an hour, as well as pegging increases for the minimum wage to the cost of living.

The president then rounded out his speech by focusing on gun control by highlighting recent victims of gun violence and demanding Congress bring many of his proposals up for a vote. He repeatedly advocated “they deserve a vote.” — Chris Clayton, DTN