Delivering a broad defense of tax increases on the wealthy to help pay America’s bills and finance new investments, President Obama used his final pre-election State of the Union address Tuesday to urge Congress to act, warning that he was prepared to leave them behind if they fail.
Taking a brief victory lap for some of the accomplishments of his first three years, including rescuing the auto industry, ending the U.S. mission in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama focused largely on the broad, populist themes he has struck repeatedly in recent months — that all Americans deserve a fair shot at economic success if they work hard and play by the rules.
In his nearly 65-minute address, President Obama mixed a little conciliation with a fair amount of confrontation, attempting to set the tone and the agenda for a year that the White House is calling “a make-or-break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it.”
Facing a Republican-held House and a closely divided Senate, Mr. Obama said Congress cannot let 2012 go by without trying to tackle big issues such as infrastructure spending, the renewal of the payroll-tax cut, massive federal deficits and the need for more spending on education.
Asserting that the state of the union is “getting stronger,” Mr. Obama declared, “As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But 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.”
What’s at stake, the president said, “are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.”
Figuring out how to keep that promise alive, the president said, is the “defining issue of our times.”
Even before the address was delivered, Republicans were attacking many of Mr. Obama’s arguments.
While campaigning in Florida, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney urged voters to make the State of the Union speech Mr. Obama’s last and blamed the president for pushing policies that have raised the nation’s unemployment rate, worsened the housing crisis and pushed the nation deeper into a sea of red ink.
The Republican National Committee launched a TV ad in three battleground states — Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan — as well as the District of Columbia accusing the president of a failed economic record.
“State of Our Union 2012: Not Better Off” is a 30-second ad that began airing Tuesday. The spot calls attention to 13 million Americans out of work and 49 million living below the poverty line.
It ends with Mr. Obama’s own words about struggling Americans, from an interview in October: “I don’t think they’re better off than they were four years ago.”
Mr. Obama, drawing on a historic speech that President Roosevelt delivered in 1910 that focused on economic inequality, mapped out a vision for “an economy built to last” based on four pillars: American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values.
While the speech focused on the lofty goals of rewarding hard work and providing more economic opportunity for all Americans, the details of the president’s plans for leveling the playing field — such as raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, imposing stricter regulations on Wall Street and creating government mandates for health care — have deeply divided the nation during his time in office.
Republicans argue that his policies have done more to hurt the economy and kill jobs than help middle-class Americans.
The partisan rancor, which has only intensified during budget debates over the past year, was on vivid display during the address.
Republicans pointedly balked when the president mentioned the Buffett plan — a proposal to raise taxes on the top income brackets. It is named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has publicly said the nation’s wealthiest Americans such as himself should pay more in taxes to help the country balance its books.
Mr. Obama offered a couple of issues on which he said he hopes he and Congress can work together, including tax reform and comprehensive immigration reform, but he warned lawmakers that he intends to continue going it alone and taking his ideas straight to the American people if they hit a brick wall on Capitol Hill.
While he stressed that far more needs to be done to jump-start the economy, the president took credit for helping to create more than 3 million jobs in the past 22 months and spurring the creation of American manufacturing jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Under his watch, the U.S. auto industry has begun to turn around, and the country’s domestic oil production is at its highest level in eight years, he said, pointedly avoiding any discussion of his decision to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit.
Republicans say the Keystone decision cost the country tens of thousands of jobs and increased the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio highlighted GOP unhappiness by inviting workers who would benefit from the Canada-to-Texas pipeline as his guests in the chamber.
Mr. Obama also touted new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, as well as the agreement he and Congress reached to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion — although the two sides have since hit a roadblock in finding the savings to clinch the deal.
“Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,” he said. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”
Although jobs and the economy dominated the speech, the president also addressed housing and college affordability as part of his overall message of a return to fairness. On the foreign policy front, he took credit for ending the war in Iraq and authorizing the mission that killed bin Laden.
The script of Mr. Obama’s speech appeared to have been completed only shortly before he spoke. Lawmakers usually get nicely printed booklets with the text, but on Tuesday they read along from computer printouts.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, read from teleprompters, punctuating his points with gestures.
Within the room, his speech lacked the energy of previous addresses.
The address was interrupted by applause more than 70 times, and the applause lines broke down along decidedly more partisan lines than usual. In fact, the speech was nearly 20 minutes old before the first bipartisan standing ovation, and that came when Mr. Obama praised American workers.
The timing of the speech, less than 10 months before November’s elections and in the middle of one of the most intense Republican primary battles in modern history, has served only to raise its political stakes, and the president was moving quickly to reinforce his pitch with voters.
Twelve hours after the address, Mr. Obama plans to embark on a furious three-day tour of five election battleground states — Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan.
Less than four hours before he headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday night, the Obama campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters with a note from the president stressing that the address will set the tone for the election year ahead.
Brookings Institution senior fellow Bill Galston said the speech sets up an election-year full of stark contrasts.
“Throughout his speech, Obama invoked the principles of fairness, collective action, and common purpose,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Conspicuously absent was the theme on which the Republican Party rests its case — namely, individual liberty — a contrast that prefigures a 2012 general election waged over clashing partisan orientations as well as competing accounts of the president’s record.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who chairs the Senate’s campaign arm, said the speech highlighted the “massive disconnect” between the president’s priorities and the nation’s most pressing challenges.
“Americans must decide whether we want to return to our roots as a beacon of entrepreneurial energy, or continue down a path towards a European-style social democracy. I’m confident that Texans will choose the first option, and that’s what I will continue to fight for here in Washington,” he said.
The speech earned high marks from the president’s base of support. AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka praised the president for laying out a vision for “an America that can create jobs and prosperity for all instead of wealth for a few.”
“Tonight he made clear that the era of the 1 percent getting rich by looting the economy, rather than creating jobs, is over — what a contrast to the vision presented by presidential candidates squabbling over how much further to cut the taxes of the 1 percent,” Mr. Trumka said in a statement.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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