WASHINGTON — Declaring the American dream under siege, President Obama delivered a populist challenge Tuesday to shrink the gap between rich and poor, promising to tax the wealthy more and help jobless Americans get work and hang onto their homes. He invited Republicans to join him but warned, “I intend to fight.”
In an emphatic State of the Union address, Obama said ensuring a “fair shot” for all Americans is “the defining issue of our time.” He said the economy is finally recovering from recession and that he will fight any effort to return to policies that brought it low.
“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” he declared.
Obama pleaded for an active government that ensures economic fairness for everyone.
Among his proposals: a 30 percent minimum tax on millionaires; a minimum tax on companies that ship jobs overseas coupled with tax cuts for those that keep factory jobs at home; and a $200 billion, six-year plan to build roads, bridges and railways with money saved from bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“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,” he said, “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.”
Lawmakers leapt to their feet when Obama said near the start of his speech that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden no longer threatens America.
At the core of Obama’s address was the improving but deeply wounded economy.
“The state of our union is getting stronger,” Obama said.
Implicit in his declaration that the American dream is “within our reach” was the recognition that, after three years of an Obama presidency, the country is not there yet.
He spoke of restoring basic goals: owning a home, earning enough to raise a family, putting a little money away for retirement.
“We can do this,” he said. “I know we can.”
He said Americans are convinced “Washington is broken” but that it isn’t too late to cooperate on important matters.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, offering the formal GOP response, called Obama’s policies “pro-poverty” and his tactics divisive.
“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,” Daniels said.
He said Obama hurt the economy with over-regulation of business, a refusal to allow domestic energy production and proposals to raise taxes on the rich that amount to dividing the country.
In a swipe at the nation’s growing income gap, Obama called for a new minimum tax rate of at least 30 percent on anyone making more than $1 million. Many millionaires – including one of Obama’s chief rivals, Republican Mitt Romney – pay a rate less than that because they get most of their income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate.
“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want,” he said. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
Obama calls this the “Buffett rule,” named for billionaire Warren Buffett, who has said it’s unfair that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. That secretary, Debbie Bosanek, attended the address in first lady Michelle Obama’s box.
To ease the enduring housing crisis, Obama said he will send Congress a new plan that would help responsible homeowners who are current on their payments save $3,000 a year by refinancing their mortgage. The program would be paid for with a new bank fee he has proposed.
He proposed steps to crack down on fraud in the financial sector and mortgage industry, with a Financial Crimes Unit to monitor bankers and financial service professionals, and a separate unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending that led to the housing crisis.
On education, Obama pushed measures for college affordability, including taking federal aid from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value, and he urged Congress to make permanent a tuition tax credit worth $10,000 over four years. He challenged state governments to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18, as 20 states already do.
Obama lauded the fact that the U.S. in 2009 became the world’s top producer of natural gas. He said his administration will prepare “common sense” new rules to ensure safe drilling of shale natural gas on public lands, drilling he said will create 600,000 new jobs by the end of the decade. He said he will also require disclosure of the chemicals used in “fracking” operations on public lands. Fracking is the use of water and chemicals under high pressure to extract oil from shale.
Obama went after an easy target in calling for reforms to keep members of Congress from engaging in insider trading and holding them to the same conflict-of-interest standards as those that apply to the executive branch.
At a time of tight federal budgets, Obama found a ready source of money to finance his ideas: He proposed to devote half of the money no longer being spent on the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan to “do some nation-building right here at home,” to help create more jobs and increase competitiveness. The other half, he said, would go to help pay down the national debt.
Obama also offered a defense of regulations that protect the American consumer – regulations often criticized by Republicans as job-killing obstacles.
“Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,” Obama 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.”