Here Are 7 of the Most Important Topics You'll Hear in the State of the Union Tonight

January 19th 2015

Mike Vainisi

Tonight, President Obama will deliver his second-to-last State of the Union address. The State of the Union is the president's annual, constitutionally required message to Congress. In modern times, presidents have used it to set their agenda for the upcoming year. The speech usually includes a laundry list of items the president wants Congress to pass for the president to sign into law. President Obama's speech will be no different.

Here's what we should expect him to talk about:

1. Tax cuts for the middle class and poor...funded by tax increases on the wealthy and the financial sector.

Middle Class

Over the weekend, the White House leaked details of the president's proposed changes to the tax system. They amount to a series of tax breaks for middle class families, working families, the poor, and students. The president will ask Congress to pay for those tax cuts with tax increases on the wealthy and the financial sector. Put together, this would raise $320 billion in new revenue while providing $175 billion in tax relief and benefits for the middle class and poor.

So what are the tax cuts?

+ Tax credits for families with small children (about $3,000 per child).

+ More money for the working poor through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

+ An extra $500 to married couples who are both working.

And here are the tax increases:

+ An increase in the capital gains tax rate to 28 percent for couples making more than $500,000 a year. It's currently at 23.8%. The capital gains tax kicks in when you sell an asset(such as stocks or bonds) for more than it cost when you bought it. So, if you bought a stock for $2 and sold it for $4, you'd be taxed on that $2 gain.

+ Closing a trust fund tax loophole that is often used by wealthy Americans to transfer large sums of money through inheritance without taxation.

+ A new tax on banks with more than $50 billion in assets.

2. Free community college


The president is asking Congress to pass $60 billion in new spending (paid for by the above tax increases) to provide free community college for qualified students. The federal government would pick up 75% of the costs, while states would pay 25%. The aim of this initiative is to better prepare our workforce for 21st century jobs -- 30% of which will require either an associate's degree or some college.

(Check this out for more details about the the president's proposal.)

3. Maternity leave and sick leave


The US is embarrassingly behind the rest of the world when it comes to guaranteed paid leave for workers. The president wants to fix that situation.

For one, he'll be asking Congress to pass a law giving all Americans six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a new child.

He'll also ask them to pass a law allowing American workers to earn up to seven days of paid leave each year. These days could be used to care for oneself or a sick family member.

(Check this out for more details about the president's plans to increase Americans' access to paid leave.)

4. Cheap, faster internet

Statistica Internet Chart

Our internet speeds and costs are also pretty embarrassing compared to the rest of the world. The president is asking the FCC to solve this problem by allowing cities and states to build publicly owned internet networks to compete with private sector internet service providers (such as Comcast, Cox, or Time Warner Cable). He'll likely also mention his request that the FCC regulate the internet like a utility -- his proposed method of protecting Net Neutrality.

(Check this out for more on the president's push for cheaper, faster internet, and here's an explainer of Net Neutrality.)

5. Immigration

Immigration March

The president, by executive action and without Congress' approval, has protected some young, undocumented immigrants from deportation. The idea is that these young people came to the US as children, grew up here, and should be allowed to stay. Many Republicans, though, disagree. Some simply don't like the idea of setting up a system that rewards unauthorized residency into the US, while others dislike the president's decision to act on his own. The president has asked Congress to approve his measures through an immigration reform bill, but that's been a non-starter in Congress for years.

One of the First Lady's guest tonight will be a young person named Ana Zamora. She was helped by the president's deportation protection and recently finished college. Expect the president to mention her while he asks Congress to pass an immigration reform bill.

(Want to fully understand the president's actions on immigration? Here's our explainer.)

6. Climate change

Keystone XL Protest

Citing concerns about climate change, the president has threatened to veto any authorization of construction on the Keystone Pipeline. Despite this threat, as one of its first acts in this Congress, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed an authorization of Keystone. Now, the House's bill goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it's expected to eventually pass with some Democratic votes (although there will likely be an attempt by other Democrats to block passage). This sets up a showdown between the president and Congress. Will the president veto the law outright? Or will he try to cut a deal for some other priority that he wants passed?

One of the First Lady's guests will be a sea level researcher who has worked to educate the Latino community in Florida about the possible negative effects that rising sea levels could have on the community. She will likely be mentioned during the speech.

(For more, check out our explainer on Keystone.)

7. Cuba

Obama on Cuba

Alan Gross will be one of the First Lady's guests tonight. Gross is the aid worker who was detained in Cuba for five years before being released late in 2014. His release coincided with the president's announcement that the US would normalize relations with Cuba, a significant change in US policy. There has been official silence between the two countries for more than 50 years. The president will likely mention Cuba and Gross.

(Confused about what exactly has changed with respect to Cuba? Check out our explainer.)

Anything else?

Based on the First Lady's guest list, the president will also probably discuss raising the minimum wage, student debt issues, the importance of access to health care through Obamacare, innovation in health care, and, possibly, cigarettes. That's right -- the CEO of CVS Health, Larry Merlo, Jr., is expected to be at the speech. CVS, you might remember, decided last year to stop selling tobacco products.

So will all of this be new law after tonight?

Nope. Aside from the FCC proposals, everything here needs to be passed by Congress. Congress, however, is controlled by the Republican Party, which is not exactly thrilled with increasing taxes on the wealthy in order to fund these programs. Consequently, it's unlikely that the president will get much, if any, of these proposals into law -- no matter how much the Democrats cheer.

If I like these proposals, what should make me hopeful that they will become law?

The president is the leader of the Democratic Party until the end of his presidency. By advocating for progressive tax policies, he's positioning his party toward a more populist stance in the 2016 Presidential election. You can be assured that likely Democratic presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton are paying close attention to the president's tone. Whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee for president will be closely tied with President Obama -- for better or worse -- and will likely be defending many of his policy positions on the campaign trail.