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State of the Union Winners and Losers: The Special Interests Edition

President Obama take shots at GOP candidates, expresses one of his "few regrets," and says he's confident " that the state of our union is strong." (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
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In his final State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama applauded a number of special interests, while criticizing others.

Here’s a rundown of who and what initiatives drew praise from the president, and the ones who got the short straw on Tuesday night.


The clean-energy sector: The president devoted a significant portion of his speech to emphasizing the importance of investing in clean energy to combat climate change, and he praised solar- and wind-energy producers. “Why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?” he said.

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Kai Anderson, a lobbyist specializing in energy policy, said it was a smart move to frame climate change as an opportunity for businesses. “Without saying Republicans need to wake up on this, he pointed out that the cost of not being part of the solution is that we miss out on massive business opportunities,” Anderson said. “It’s a tremendous business opportunity for folks who are part of the innovation economy.”

Unions: Obama criticized attacks on collective bargaining, saying that is not the way to help working families get more opportunities or earn bigger paychecks.

He also called for some changes that unions support, such as raising the federal minimum wage and implementing paid leave. Still, some unions quickly lashed out in response to the address, zeroing in on the president’s endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which many unions oppose. “The TPP fails working people,” said AFL-CIO trade policy specialist Celeste Drake. “It will intensify downward pressure on wages and threaten jobs, food safety and even our democracy. … Working people have supported the president through many difficult fights. We deserve better and will fight to defeat the TPP.”

TPP supporters: As expected, Obama commended the trade pact, saying it will open markets, support more good jobs and advance American leadership in Asia.

The nod does not do much to move the needle on TPP, which is facing sharp criticism from unions and environmental groups. But it is welcomed by the deal’s supporters, which include the nation’s largest business groups. “President Obama and Congress should make 2016 the year of good jobs and stronger, sustained growth by enacting laws that help the U.S. economy reach its greatest potential,” said Business Roundtable Chairman Doug Oberhelman, who is also the CEO of Caterpillar. “Those policies include passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and pro-growth permanent tax reform.”

The pro-Cuba normalization lobby: Obama, who in 2014 announced the United States would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, used the address to reiterate the importance of ending the trade embargo. “Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy,” he said, adding, “If you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere, recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.”

A wide range of businesses have been lobbying Congress for months to loosen restrictions on travel, agricultural sales, and rules for ships traveling between the United States and Cuba. They were pleased to hear the president mention the thaw as part of his final legacy-defining SOTU speech.


Ultra-wealthy political donors: The president called for changes that would lessen the influence of money in politics “so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” But he was vague about how exactly to proceed. Unlike previous State of the Union addresses, in which he proposed specific changes — including banning people who bundle money for  candidates from lobbying Congress — he did not offer a path forward. “If our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution,” he said.

Wall Street, big banks: In a similar vein, Obama suggested that big banks, large oil companies and hedge funds have been making “their own rules at everyone else’s expense,” adding that “food stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did.” However, the president did not explicitly spell out how the administration would crack down on Wall Street, banks or oil companies.


Small businesses: Obama spoke fondly of entrepreneurs, saying they play an important role in the country’s “spirit of discovery,” that start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, and that “the rules should work for them.”

But the National Federation of Independent Business wasn’t having it. “We’re disappointed that the president mentioned small business, which represents half the economy and half the jobs, only in passing and in the strangest context,” said NFIB President Dan Danner. “Small businesses have been loudly and clearly opposed to many of the very policies that he featured in his speech this evening, including the health-care law, his energy regulations and mandatorily higher labor costs. Small businesses don’t need a stronger voice. They need someone to listen.”

The scene as Obama delivers his final State of the Union address

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 12, 2016 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Correction: An earlier version of this report contained an incorrect reference to the National Federation of Independent Business.