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Obama: My policies are working

 

President Obama said the United States is ready to “turn the page” on recession and war in a State of the Union address given with one eye on the history books.

Just two months after a crushing election loss that swept Republicans to the majority in the Senate, a jocular, confident Obama on Tuesday declared “the shadow of crisis has passed,” credited his policies for the economic turnaround and challenged Congress to fight inequality and boost the middle class.

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“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama said. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

Obama presented a sweeping progressive vision for what he repeatedly called “middle-class economics” in an effort to shake up both reluctant lawmakers and a national audience whose attention is already shifting to the race to replace him.

He called on lawmakers to embrace a “better politics” where they could work through disagreements for the good of the nation.

“I want this chamber, this city, to reflect the truth – that for all our blind spots and shortcomings, we are a people with the strength and generosity of spirit to bridge divides, to unite in common effort, and help our neighbors, whether down the street or on the other side of the world,” Obama said.

But he punctuated that sentiment with a defiant reminder that he still had the bully pulpit — and still planned to use it.

When Republicans applauded his acknowledgment that he had "no more campaigns to run," Obama grinned and pronounced: "I know because I won both of them."

His proposals, which the White House has slowly previewed over the past two weeks, center on a plan to raise $320 billion through new taxes and fees on the wealthy and big banks. 

Obama would use the revenue to pay for free community college tuition, universal child care and additional tax credits for working-class families. The president also asked for expanded paid leave for workers and highlighted his efforts to reduce mortgage insurance rates.

Most of Obama’s new ideas will be dead on arrival with the GOP-led Congress, where Republicans have already dismissed many of them as unserious and uncompromising. 

But for a president eager to maintain his relevance while shaping both his legacy and the future of his party, the Tuesday speech offered a chance to lay down markers that should structure the debate to come.

“The verdict is clear,” Obama said, heralding an economy that had “risen from recession.”

“Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work as long as politics don’t get in the way,” Obama said.

Obama and his administration have struck a newly confident note since his party’s midterm defeats.

Democrats blamed the president for their losses in the House and Senate, and were particularly peeved by a self-inflicted wound caused when Obama told an audience that while he was not on the November ballot, his policies were.

Obama responded with executive actions on climate change and immigration meant to lock in the change promised during his first presidential campaign. The president also announced a dramatic change in relations with Cuba that surprised Washington.

Falling gas prices and rising job numbers have also buoyed the administration by increasing public confidence about the economy. The overall effect has been to raise Obama’s approval ratings.

"This is good news, people," Obama quipped.

Obama indicated Tuesday that he saw his proposals as a legacy-building project, likening his ideas to worker protections and entitlement programs launched and implemented during the beginning of the last century.

“In fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” Obama said.

But the president also made clear that he would oppose Republicans if they sought to undermine his signature healthcare law, financial reform efforts or executive action on immigration.

In that vein, Obama offered a stern warning to congressional Republicans threatening to tie funding for the Department of Homeland Security to a repeal of his recent executive action on immigration. 

"We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns," Obama said. "We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto."

He said he would also veto efforts to impose additional sanctions on Iran amid high-stakes negotiations over its nuclear program. And Obama bragged that a recent climate deal with China had paved the way for additional international agreements to bolster environmental protections.

That provided another opportunity for the president to crack jokes at his opposition's expense.

"I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act," Obama said. "Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities."
 
Aides said the speech was not intended to be confrontational, and Obama insisted he wants to work with Republicans.

“I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger,” Obama said.

A senior administration official said the White House believed “stars may be aligning” for cybersecurity legislation after the high-profile hack of Sony Pictures late last year.

“If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable,” Obama said. “If we do, we can continue to protect the technologies that have unleashed untold opportunities for people around the globe.”

And Obama said even deep-seeded differences, like those exposed in the aftermath of police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island.

"Surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed," Obama said. "Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift."

And officials insisted Tuesday that Obama isn’t thinking about 2016.

“Why would he be focused on an election that he’s not in?” one senior administration official said, adding that Obama was merely focused on “pushing for action, even if Republicans are doing everything they can to resist.”

Obama called on lawmakers to give him the authority he needs to negotiate major trade agreements, an area where the administration is more likely to come into conflict with its own party than Republicans. 

That drew a rare standing ovation from Republicans — and laughter from many Democrats who remained glued to their seats.

Obama acknowledged the difficult labor politics involved and said he would strike deals that were good for the nation’s economy and security.

"I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype, and that’s why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense," Obama said. "But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders, and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities."

But Republicans who otherwise dismissed his address said they were encouraged by the inclusion of trade talk.

"The most promising part of the speech was the president’s request for the renewal of trade promotion authority," said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

On foreign policy, Obama offered a forceful defense of what he called “a smarter kind of American leadership,” more dependent on coalition building and diplomacy. 

He argued that approach had stopped the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria without dragging the nation into another ground war. And he asked Congress to provide him with an authorization for use of military force specifically targeting the terrorist network.

“We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy, when we leverage our power with coalition building, when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents,” he said.

This story was updated at 10:32 p.m.