President Obama in his election-year State of the Union address Tuesday struck a populist chord likely to resonate throughout the campaign, lambasting the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else and the threat he said that inequity poses to America’s middle class.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules,” the president said.
Obama called for a surge in green energy projects and education funding, but said paying for such efforts while reducing the nation’s record budget deficit would require the rich to pay higher taxes. He proposed that anyone earning more than $1 million a year should pay a minimum 30 percent tax rate. But he also called on Congress to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans through the rest of the year.
The address to a joint session of Congress gave the president a chance to reassert himself in a national dialogue now dominated by his Republican rivals, who claim his reliance on government spending and regulation are inhibiting economic growth.
With Election Day swiftly approaching, Obama is portraying himself as a champion for the middle class — banking that public frustration with both Washington and Wall Street will propel him to victory despite unrelenting unemployment.
That message, however, did not sit well with conservatives.
“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered the Republican Party’s response.
Virtually all of the president’s hour-long speech was dedicated to the economy, though he also cited foreign policy accomplishments in the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But he proposed using the billions once reserved for the Iraq war to pay down the nation’s debt and rebuild its infrastructure.
Obama vowed to change laws to discourage American companies from sending jobs overseas while rewarding those who created them at home. He praised Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose widow sat with first lady Michelle Obama, for his efforts to create jobs, though the president failed to note that Apple sent most of those jobs overseas and has no intention of returning them to the United States.
In recent weeks, Obama has issued executive orders on housing and student loans and appointed a consumer protection watchdog in hopes of convincing voters that he’s in tune with their primary concern: the economy. And the president pledged to act even if congressional Republicans continue to fight him.
“I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” he said.
Pivoting from his central economic message, Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform, a top priority for his Hispanic supporters.
Obama will take his message on the campaign trail Wednesday, traveling to five battleground states, including Arizona and Iowa.