In his third State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted a populist call for greater income equality regarding taxes, as he challenged GOP lawmakers to work with him or move aside so he could use the power of the presidency to produce results for an electorate uncertain whether he deserves another term.
Facing a deeply divided Congress, Obama appealed for lawmakers to send him legislation on immigration, clean energy and housing, knowing full well the election-year prospects are bleak but aware that polls show that the independent voters who lifted him to the presidency crave bipartisanship.
Obama reiterated a call for comprehensive immigration reform, including giving responsible young people a chance to earn their citizenship, and also touted the recently signed free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.
"With the bipartisan trade agreements I signed into law, we are on track to meet that goal - ahead of schedule," Obama said. "Soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea."
The Democratic president's vision of an activist government broke sharply with Republican demands for less government intervention to allow free enterprise. The stark differences will be evident in the White House's dealings with Congress and in the presidential campaign over the next 10 months.
Anyone who tells you America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about.
- U.S. President Barack Obama
In the Republican response to the president's address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who once considered a White House bid, railed against the "extremism" of an administration that stifles economic growth.
"No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant effort to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others," Daniels said, speaking from Indianapolis. "As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat."
Obama said getting a fair shot for all Americans is "the defining issue of our time." He described an economy on the rebound from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with more than 3 million jobs created in the last 22 months and U.S. manufacturers hiring. Although unemployment is high at 8.5 percent, home sales and corporate earnings have increased, among other positive economic signs.
Republicans say the president's policies have undermined the economy.
Obama "had the opportunity and the responsibility to level with the American people, admit that the policies of the past three years have delivered an underwhelming record of economic growth and job creation, and show an interest in changing direction and uniting, not dividing the nation," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., head of the Republican Policy Committee. "The president failed to meet that responsibility."
There were brief moments of bipartisanship. Republicans and Democrats sat together, continuing a practice begun last year. The arrival of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt, elicited sustained applause and cheering, with chants of "Gabby, Gabby." Republican Rep. Jeff Flake escorted her into the chamber and Obama greeted her with a hug.
The president received loud applause from both sides when he said: "I'm a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more."
But all that belied a fierce divide.
Obama ticked off items on a hefty agenda that he wants from Congress — a path to citizenship for children who come to the United States with their undocumented parents if they complete college, tax credits for clean energy, elimination of red tape for Americans refinancing their mortgages, a measure that bans insider trading by lawmakers and a payroll tax cut.
Political reality suggests it was largely wishful thinking on Obama's part. The payroll tax cut and must-do spending bill are the most likely legislative items to survive the election year.
But Obama's far-reaching list and the hour-plus speech offered a unique opportunity to contrast his record with congressional Republicans and his top presidential rivals, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
"Anyone who tells you America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," Obama said — a clear response to the White House hopefuls who have pummeled him for months.
In an attack on 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 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," Obama 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. Emphasizing the point, Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, attended the address in first lady Michelle Obama's box.
Obama made his appeal on the same day that Romney released some of his tax returns, showing he made more than $20 million in a single year and paid around 14 percent in taxes, largely because his wealth came from investments.
In advance of Obama's speech, Romney said, "Tonight will mark another chapter in the misguided policies of the last three years — and the failed leadership of one man."
Obama highlighted his national security successes — the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the diminished strength of al-Qaida and the demise of Moammar Gadhafi. In hailing the men and women of the military, the commander in chief contrasted their cooperation and dedication with the divisions and acrimony in Washington.
"At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations," Obama said. "They're not consumed with personal ambition. They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example."
Obama leaves Washington for a three-day tour of five states crucial to his re-election bid. On Wednesday he'll visit Iowa and Arizona to promote ideas to boost American manufacturing; on Thursday in Nevada and Colorado he'll discuss energy; and in Michigan on Friday he'll talk about college affordability, education and training.
He also addresses a conference of House Democrats focused on their own re-election in Cambridge, Md., on Friday.
Polling shows Americans are divided about Obama's overall job performance but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.