U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday used his annual State of the Union policy address to denounce America’s economic inequality, drawing a battle line with Republicans ahead of what is expected to be a tough fight for re-election.
The speech before a joint session of Congress, one of America’s grandest political events, put Mr. Obama back in the spotlight after months of being overshadowed by the fierce race among Republicans vying to be his opponent in the November election. Tens of millions of people were expected to watch the speech on television.
Mr. Obama said the state of the union “is getting stronger.” But with the weak economic recovery threatening his re-election prospects, Mr. Obama pledged a revival, but one that will work for everyone and not just the rich.
Restoring a fair shot for all, is “the defining issue of our time,” Mr. Obama said.
“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,” he said.
Even before he spoke, Republicans denounced the speech as “pro-poverty” and his tactics as divisive.
“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favour with some Americans by castigating others,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who presented the formal Republican response. Excerpts were released in advance.
Views on economy
The remarks by both sides reflect the unmistakably different views of the economy and the role of government that will likely define the election.
Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich blame Mr. Obama for what they see as reckless spending, high taxes and out-of-control government regulations that hurt businesses, prevent hiring and stifle growth.
Mr. Obama casts government as a force that can help people get a shot at a better life. He has accused Republicans of defending the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
His timing could not have been better for a message about income inequality. Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Romney released his tax returns under political pressure, revealing that he earned nearly $22 million in 2010 and paid an effective tax rate of about 14 per cent. That is a lesser rate than many Americans pay because of how investment income is taxed in the United States.
In his speech, Mr. Obama proposed making millionaires pay more in taxes. He also proposed more relief for homeowners and a crackdown on sending U.S. jobs overseas.
Mr. Obama faces considerable challenges three years into his term. Polling shows Americans are divided about Mr. Obama’s overall job performance but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.
The economy is improving, but unemployment still stands at the high rate of 8.5 per cent. Government debt stands at $15.2 trillion, a record, and up from $10.6 trillion when he took office.
Given Obama’s poor relations with congressional Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that he will get any major initiatives approved this year. Mr. Obama has tried to take the offensive with a slew of executive actions that didn’t require congressional votes.
Last year was marked by partisan breakdowns in Washington. The government neared both a shutdown and, even worse, a default on its obligations for the first time in history.
A rare wave of unity splashed over the House chamber shortly before the speech. Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, survivor of an assassination attempt in her Arizona district one year ago, received sustained applause from her peers and hugs from many. Mr. Obama, too, warmly embraced her as he made his way to the front of the chamber.