By Amie Parnes - 01/25/12 03:47 AM EST
President Obama used his election-year State of the Union address to issue a loud call for economic equality based on “responsibility from everybody,” a theme prefacing his 2012 campaign message.
Cranking up the volume on the populist message that the wealthy should pay higher taxes, Obama said the goal of economic equality was a return to American values and “the defining issue of our time.”
In the address—dubbed a “Blueprint for America Built to Last”— a pugnacious Obama used the power of the bully pulpit before a sharply divided joint session of Congress to take the offensive and pledge that while he would work with lawmakers, he also intended to “fight obstruction with action.”
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans 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,” Obama said. “What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values but American values. We have to reclaim them.”
The address has been dubbed as the president’s first major stump speech of the year, and Obama took an indirect swing at GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney—who released his much anticipated tax returns earlier in the day-—by renewing his call for the so-called “Buffett Rule,” named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
The rule seeks to ensure that middle-class workers do not pay a higher tax rate than their well-to-do bosses and Obama’s proposal dictates that those making more than $1 million would pay a minimum effective rate of at least 30 percent, more than double the rate Romney expects to pay this year.
It would also eliminate tax deductions for those making more than $1 million—including for housing, health care, retirement and child care—and would end federal subsidies such as food stamps and unemployment benefits for millionaires.
To drive the message home, Obama invited Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek to attend; she sat with first lady Michelle Obama.
“Now you can call this class warfare all you want,” a feisty Obama said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
“We don’t begrudge financial success in this country,” the president continued. “We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference…That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right.”
Romney, who has seen his command of the GOP race unravel due to a surge in support for Newt Gingrich, offered a retort to Obama a half-day before the president delivered his address, ripping the president as the “Campaigner-in-Chief” to an audience in Florida for using the State of the Union to “divide our nation.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who delivered the formal GOP response to Obama, also criticized the president for his divisive rhetoric. He said It’s “not fair and it’s not true” for Obama to cast congressional Republicans as obstacles.
The address on Tuesday night had a much different air from the one which took place last year, in the days after the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) when lawmakers in both parties sought to ease tensions and put aside the vitriol that became commonplace on Capitol Hill.
While the chamber gave Giffords a rousing standing ovation upon her arrival on Tuesday night, Obama was met with a partly grim-faced crowd when he discussed his priorities—including a renewed call to prevent a tax hike on a 160 working class Ameircans-- with a partly-combative tone.
“People cannot afford losing $40 out of each paycheck this year,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to get this done. So let’s agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay. Let’s get it done!”
Obama’s speech expanded on the vision he sketched out in an address last month in Kansas. He set out to provide Congress with a wish list of sorts to achieve a sound economy, and his hour-long address included four major cornerstones: manufacturing, energy, education and values.
"Think about the America within our reach, a country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high paying jobs," Obama said. "A future where we're in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren't so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded."
Obama provided new details in the speech on how to invest in jobs domestically though “insourcing.”
He proposed eliminating tax deductions for companies that move U.S. jobs overseas and called for an “international minimum tax” to be imposed on a company’s overseas profits. He also proposed a tax credit for companies that move jobs back to the U.S.
The president also unveiled a new mortgage crisis unit that will be directed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The new office would be created within the Unit on Mortgage Origination and Securitization that investigates misconduct and illegal activity in the housing market. He also announced that he would be creating a Trade Enforcement Unit that will investigate “unfair” trade practices in countries like China.
In a nod to the Hispanic voters who will be a key factor in the fall campaign, Obama called for building a 21st century immigration system intended to give “responsible young people” a chance to earn their citizenship.
“We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now,” Obama said. “But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses and defend this country.”
While the focus of the address is on the economy, Obama also touted his foreign policy accomplishments. Keeping up with his campaign pledge, Obama said he brought the troops home from Iraq. He also said he delivered justice to 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and that the nation has made important progress in Afghanistan and joined with allies and partners to protect the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
The president—who has chided Congress in recent months for refusing to act—most recently in the payroll tax debate, has demonstrated that he will go it alone, using a string of "We Can't Wait" initiatives to move ahead with his proposals. Earlier this month, he angered GOP lawmakers by recess-appointing three people to the National Labor Relations Board and Richard Cordray, who was invited to the State of the Union, to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In his address on Tuesday, Obama vowed to work with "anyone in this chamber" to build on momentum to achieve a sound economy. But at the same time, he added, "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.
“With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow,” Obama warned.
He did just that when he informed the chamber that he would be signing an executive order that would clear away that red tape that stalls construction projects.
And he did it again when he said he was directing his administration “to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes.” Obama said the Department of Defense—the world’s largest consumer of energy—would make a commitment to clean energy by having the Navy purchase enough capacity to power more than 200,000 homes a year.
“The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change,” Obama said. “But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far you haven’t acted. Well tonight, I will.”
While some are dubbing the address as the first major stump speech of the year, the White House has refuted the suggestion, calling it a policy heavy speech that largely steers clear of politics.
On Wednesday, Obama will attempt to sell the points of his address in a three-day road trip to five battleground states in Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan.
This story was posted at 9:15 p.m. and updated at 10:47 p.m.