WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama used Tuesday's State of the Union address to lay out a vision of America in which everybody gets a fair shot at economic success and everybody -- including the wealthy -- plays by the same rules as the average citizen.
"The state of our Union is getting stronger," the president told lawmakers piled into the House chamber. "As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But 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."
In his third State of the Union address to the nation, Obama pitched a blueprint for economic success based on four components: American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values.
On manufacturing, he outlined a handful of changes to the tax code aimed at creating incentives for companies to bring overseas jobs back to the United States. "Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and our country will do everything we can to help you succeed," he said.
The president called for more attention to education and job training, with an emphasis on helping teachers prosper. "Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the best resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility," he said.
Obama also addressed the deficit and noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans have already agreed to more than $2 trillion in cuts and savings. Still, he said, more needs to be done.
"Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?" he asked. "Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else, like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we're serious about paying down our debt, we can't do both."
Obama's speech came in the midst of a rapidly escalating presidential campaign season. His strong message about the need for social and economic equality will become a familiar theme in the months leading up to the November elections.
"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."
The bottom line, he said, is that America was built on the promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send kids to college and put away money for retirement.
"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive," said the president. "No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important."
Obama proposed some significant new policy items, including the creation of a new international minimum tax on U.S. companies making profits overseas; the launching of a new trade enforcement unit that would target unfair trade practices in countries around the world, including China; and a plan to shift federal aid away from colleges that don't keep down tuition costs. He also announced that the Defense Department will make history's largest renewable energy purchase -- totaling 1 gigawatt. The president can use his executive power to make the last item happen.
Obama also gave a push to some proposals that make for good politics but stand next to no chance of moving in Congress. Among them, a call for action on comprehensive immigration reform and a request that the Senate pass a rule that all of his nominees receive a straight up-or-down vote within 90 days of being submitted by the White House.
Ahead of the address, senior administration officials who spoke only on background and wouldn't be quoted, said the underlying message of the speech is that Obama's economic policies have been working and should be continued. The country had already lost 4 million jobs to the recession before Obama came into office and lost another 4 million before his policies took effect, they said. By contrast, Obama's policies have created more than 3 million private sector jobs in the past two years.
The officials also highlighted a new initiative to place 2 million people in jobs through new partnerships with businesses and community colleges. Steve Jobs, the recently deceased CEO of Apple, had pressed Obama for proposals like this in a past meeting, said the officials.
During his remarks, Obama reiterated his support for instituting the "Buffett rule," a concept that he and congressional Democrats have been pushing for months as a way to pay for their legislative priorities. Named after billionaire Warren Buffett, the rule would require people making more than $1 million to pay a minimum effective rate of at least 30 percent.
Warren Buffett's secretary Debbie Bosanek was a guest of the First Lady at the State of the Union. Buffett has made the case that millionaires and billionaires should be taxed at higher rates by pointing out that Bosanek pays a higher effective rate than he does.
"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," Obama 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. What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."
Other notable attendees at the event included Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who made the trip to Washington, D.C.,two days before she plans to step down to focus on her recovery after being shot in the head in Tucson in Jan. 2011. Giffords' husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, also attended as a guest of the First Lady.
Most of the speech was colored by applause by Democrats and silence from Republicans. But there were occasional moments where the entire chamber erupted into cheers.
Everyone jumped to their feet when Obama declared at the start of the address, "For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country." Both parties applauded Obama's call for more tax breaks for small business. And Republicans cheered the loudest when the president said he supported their "all of the above" strategy on energy reform, which includes offshore drilling.
Obama concluded by emphasizing "the nation is great" because it was built by people who worked together as a team, which is the best way to get back to economic prosperity.
"The nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great, no mission too hard. As long as we're joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong."
The president isn't wasting any time when it comes to selling his vision to the country. On Wednesday, he'll kick off a three-day tour of five states, Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan, which are key battlegrounds in the upcoming presidential race. The move is a convenient way for Obama to connect his governing activities to his campaigning, which has already gotten off the ground but is not yet operating at full force.
Obama is also slated to sit down with ABC's Diane Sawyer on Thursday for his first post-State of the Union interview. Sawyer is soliciting questions from the public to ask the president.
In the meantime, White House officials will spend the week managing a social media blitz. On Tuesday night, administration officials took questions from the public about the address submitted via Twitter, Facebook and Google+ in front of a live audience -- and responded to questions in real time via Twitter, using the hashtag #WHChat and #SOTU.
From Wednesday through Friday, senior administration officials will host a marathon of online question and answer sessions via Twitter. Wednesday's panel will focus on general questions about the address. Community-focused discussions with policy advisers will take place Thursday and Friday's Q&A will be directed toward specific policy issues, including health, education and jobs. People who want to participate can ask questions on Twitter with the hashtag #WHChat, and administration officials will respond in real time.
This article has been updated with further information about the president's speech.
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