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Missing from SOTU: 'grand bargain,' Buffett Rule -- and King Canute

One way of measuring a president’s agenda is by what he highlights in his State of the Union address. Another is by noticing what got left out.

President Obama recycled a long list of old but unattained goals in his speech Tuesday: a higher federal minimum wage, early childhood education, immigration reform, tax reform, infrastructure spending, gun control, legislation to close the wage gap between men and women, and closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All were in last year’s State of the Union address too.

What didn’t make the cut? At least three items:

A “grand bargain”: For three years, Obama pursued a big fiscal deal that would have traded higher taxes (a Democratic goal) for cuts in long-term spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security (a Republican goal). But with the federal deficit slowly shrinking, members of Congress in both parties are even less enthusiastic about tackling that kind of difficult compromise than before. Obama didn’t even try to sell them on it this time. It’s over.

The Buffett Rule: In 2012, Obama called on Congress to impose a minimum income tax of 30% on anyone making more than $1 million a year, inspired by billionaire Warren Buffett’s observation that his secretary paid a higher percentage of her income in taxes than he did. (The secretary, Debbie Bosanek, even got to sit in the gallery with Michelle Obama that year.) In 2013, Obama renewed the call, at least by implication. This year? Gone. Sorry, Warren.

King Canute: In a different vein, an early draft of this year’s speech would have had the president denounce wage stagnation, stalled social mobility and income inequality, and then declare: “Our job is to reverse these tides.” But that sounded uncomfortably close to the story of King Canute, the 11th century Danish ruler of England who famously commanded the tide to stop. (It didn’t.) Historians say Canute wasn’t mad; he was trying to show his courtiers that the king’s power had limits. That’s true about Obama’s sway over income inequality too, but that probably wasn’t the point the president wanted to stress. In the final version of the speech, Obama said he hoped, instead, to “reverse these trends,”  a much blander phrase — to the disappointment of columnists and historians alike.

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