President Obama hit the road Wednesday to promote a grab bag of new government programs, tax credits and worker protections -- paid for with higher taxes on top earners -- while holding the threat of vetoes over the heads of the new Republican leadership in Congress.
After delivering a defiant State of the Union address that set a combative tone for his final two years in office, the president traveled to Idaho to reinforce his plan and tout the country’s recent economic successes.
“The ruling on the field stands, middle-class opportunities work. Expanding opportunity works,” the president said at a rally at Boise State University, citing the recent surges in job growth, domestic energy production and student achievement.
However, in a speech that borrowed significantly from his address Tuesday, Obama also struck a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging he got “whooped” in Iowa during the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
“As I’ve travelled the country, I have seen the desire among the American people to make progress together,” he said as he restated his plan to end tax cuts for the “super rich” and close corporate-tax “loopholes” to “lower the cost of community college to zero.”
Still, he challenged critics of his “middle class economics” plan to present better solutions.
Obama was to speak later Wednesday at an event in Topeka, Kansas.
The most controversial plank in Obama’s overall plan, unveiled over the weekend, is to impose more than $300 billion in tax hikes over 10 years. They hikes include those on investment and inheritance taxes for top-earners to fund tax credit expansions for the middle class -- including tripling the maximum child tax credit to up to $3,000 per child. The funding also would pay for an initiative providing free community college for two years for students who keep up their grades (though the White House calls for rolling back a separate college savings tax break).
While laying out his ambitious agenda, the president has also vowed to fight GOP bills that would chip away at ObamaCare, financial regulations and his recent immigration actions.
"If a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it," Obama said Tuesday. He issued similar threats with regard to legislation teeing up new Iran sanctions and efforts to roll back environmental regulations.
In an off-script moment, the president even reminded Republicans of his electoral successes. After declaring he had no more campaigns to run, he quipped, "I know because I won both of them."
GOP leaders bristled at the president's remarks. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner said he offered "more taxes, more government, more of the same approach that has failed the middle class for decades."
As for the president's warnings to the new Congress, Boehner said, "Veto threats and fantasy land proposals will not distract the people's house from the people's priorities."
The address reflected a president disinclined to cede ground in the wake of his party's midterm losses.
Obama is also calling anew for Congress to raise the minimum wage and for new measures to guarantee paid sick leave for American workers.
On his college plan, the president says he wants to make two years of community college "as free and universal in America as high school is today."
While Republicans have questioned the mechanics of the college plan, they have declared his tax proposal a "non-starter" in the new GOP-led Congress.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement that the address showed Obama slipping back into his role as "campaigner-in-chief," pushing higher taxes and more regulations, while issuing "premature veto threats."
In a pointed swipe sure to anger Republicans, Obama in his address downplayed the jobs impact of the proposed Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, without mentioning it by name. Calling for more infrastructure spending, he said: "Let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year."
Defending his tax plan, Obama said lobbyists have "rigged" the system with loopholes and giveaways "that the superrich don't need, while denying a break to middle-class families who do."
He called for closing them "to help more families pay for child care and send their kids to college."
Yet the president, as part of his tax plan, is calling for ending a tax break for college savings plans known as 529 plans. Under the change, earnings on contributions could not be withdrawn tax-free, as they can be now.
The speech was dominated by economic and domestic issues, though the president did devote several minutes to addressing foreign policy and terrorism and specifically the threat posed by the Islamic State.
"We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies," he vowed.
He also defended his recent decision to push for normalizing relations with Cuba. Despite concerns among some lawmakers in Congress that the Castro regime may exploit the opening to its advantage, Obama urged Congress to "begin the work of ending the embargo."
The speech was Obama's first State of the Union before a Congress controlled by Republicans. The party won control of the Senate and built a historic majority in the House in November.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, elected in November, delivered the official Republican response to Obama on Tuesday night.
She called for simplifying America's "outdated and loophole-ridden tax code" -- not to finance more spending, but improve the economy.
"So let's iron out loopholes to lower rates -- and create jobs, not pay for more government spending," she said. "The president has already expressed some support for these kinds of ideas. We're calling on him now to cooperate to pass them."