The New York Times
By: Helene Cooper
January 25, 2012
In address, Obama makes pitch for economic fairness
President Obama pledged on Tuesday night to use government power to balance the scale between America's rich and the rest of the public, trying to present an election-year choice between continued leadership toward an economy ''built to last'' and what he called irresponsible policies of the past that caused an economic collapse.
Declaring that ''we've come too far to turn back now,'' the president used his final State of the Union address before he faces the voters to showcase the extent to which he will try to contrast his core economic principles with those of his Republican rivals in a time of deep economic uncertainty. While many Americans remain disappointed with the state of the economy and the president's handling of it, Mr. Obama nonetheless tried to bring into relief the difference between where the country was when he took over and where it is now.
''The state of our union is getting stronger,'' he declared in time-honored tradition. ''In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs.'' He pointed to renewed hiring by American manufacturers and -- borrowing the ''built to last'' phrase from the auto industry he helped save -- he sketched out, albeit vaguely, what he called a blueprint for economic growth in which the wealthy play by the same rules as ordinary Americans.
Republicans challenged Mr. Obama's assessment of the economy, and asserted that his policies had made the situation worse. But with their own poll numbers diving, Congressional Republicans were subdued in their response to the speech, careful not to boo or seem disrespectful. And the president disputed their claim that he was practicing the politics of division.
''You can call this class warfare all you want,'' Mr. Obama said of his call to create a more even economic playing field. ''Most Americans would call that common sense.'' He characterized the choice as one between whether ''a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by'' or his own vision -- ''where everyone gets a fair shot.''
In returning to his 2008 campaign motif of these being ''not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values,'' Mr. presented a somewhat modest list of initiatives he could enact through executive authority coupled with more ambitious proposals unlikely to advance in Congress. It was an address meant to show a president still interested in governing and a leader putting the interests of the American middle class at the top of his agenda.
Many of his proposals centered on changes to the tax code, including limiting deductions for companies that move jobs overseas, rewarding companies that return jobs to the United States and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.
Taking aim at financial institutions that engaged in risky lending practices that many believe tipped the country into financial crisis, Mr. Obama said he was asking Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending. The new unit, he said, ''will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.''
Mr. Obama also proposed a new trade enforcement unit that would add to the number of government investigators pursuing unfair trade practices and that would be responsible for filing lawsuits against foreign countries, namely China. He called for new legislation to make it easier for Americans to refinance their homes if their interest rates are above market rates. And he proposed a bound-to-be-contentious way to allocate any savings from ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan: by using half of the war savings on infrastructure projects and the other half to reduce the deficit.
''We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits,'' Mr. said. Though his advisers have vowed a campaign against Congress, he expressed a willingness to ''work with anyone in this chamber'' and said he would ''oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.''
In an emotional moment, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was wounded in the Tucson shooting last year, returned for the speech before her imminent resignation from the House to concentrate on her recovery. Although the president is often criticized for his aloofness, he embraced Ms. Giffords for a long 10 seconds, rocking and almost seeming to be dancing with her.
Mr. Obama again proposed changes to the tax code so the wealthy pay more, a position he has indicated he will continue to press in this election year against Republican opposition. He called for Congress to put into place his ''Buffett Rule'' -- named after the Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren E. Buffett -- whereby people making more than $1 million a year would pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent in income taxes.
To illustrate his point, he provocatively used Mr. Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, as one of his props, seating Ms. Bosanek -- whose effective tax rate is higher than Mr. Buffett's, he has said -- in the chamber with the first lady, Michelle Obama. Mr. Obama's income tax proposal on Tuesday night was particularly charged, coming as it did less than 24 hours after Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, released tax returns showing that he and his wife, Ann, had an effective federal income tax rate in 2010 of 13.9 percent and an income ranking among the top one-10th of 1 percent of all taxpayers in 2010.
Mr. Obama would like the new tax to replace the alternative minimum tax, which was created decades ago to make sure that the richest taxpayers with plentiful deductions and credits did not avoid income taxes, but which now affects millions of Americans who are considered upper middle class.
An upbeat Mr. Obama delivered his remarks standing in the chamber of the House of Representatives, an arena ruled by his political adversaries, given the Republican majority that the president and fellow Democrats have criticized as blocking much of the White House agenda.
But in the official Republican response to the address, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said it had been Congressional Republicans who had acted to improve the economy, only to be thwarted by the president.
''The president did not cause the economic and fiscal crisis that continue in America tonight,'' Mr. Daniels said. ''But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse.''
While he was addressing Congress and assembled dignitaries, Mr. Obama was trying to reach the far greater national television audience of American voters, and his speech, while deep in policy initiatives, served in many ways as a prime-time kickoff of his re-election campaign.
In fact, most of the first lady's guests on Tuesday night came from states that figure heavily in Mr. re-election plans. Included were North Carolina, from where Mr. Obama selected both a worker and an employer, to demonstrate the benefits of public-private partnerships, and Florida, from where he chose a homeowner who was able to keep her house thanks to Mr. Obama's housing refinance program.
Mr. Obama said a major part of his agenda would be the expansion of domestic energy supplies, both from traditional fuels like oil and natural gas and from cleaner sources like wind and the sun. He singled out the rapid growth of domestic natural gas production through the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which the government says has unlocked a 100-year supply that now makes the United States the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.
Reflecting the heavy emphasis on the economy in an election year, the president's speech was relatively short on national security, where most political observers and indeed his own aides believe his performance has been much stronger than on the economy. In fact, Mr. Obama ended his speech with the American assault last year that finally, after 10 years, killed Osama bin Laden, and talked of that fateful day last May when he monitored the attack from the White House.
He called on the country to emulate the unity of the Navy Seal team that conducted the raid. ''When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you,'' the president said, ''or the mission fails.''