Beyond the soaring rhetoric, the clever stagecraft, and the lengthy list of initiatives, President Obama's message in his State of the Union address Tuesday night was simple: He will do everything he can to take care of the middle class while the Republicans would force too many everyday Americans to fend for themselves.
"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, and 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."
Obama also served notice that, while he is willing to work with congressional Republicans, he won't let them block his agenda. He suggested that he will find ways to bypass them through executive orders and other forms of unilateral action. "The state of our Union is getting stronger," Obama said. "And we've come too far to turn back now. 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."
White House strategists admit that the president has a serious challenge in rallying the country because Americans are so polarized about what direction to take, and so many voters are anxious and angry at the status quo. Polls show nearly seven out of ten Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
The Republican presidential candidates, including front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, are presenting themselves in some ways as nostalgists, promising a return to a gauzy past of rugged individualism, minimal government, good times, and traditional values. They are also raising the glowing prospect of going back to an era when Americans would win at whatever they did, whether it was waging war, developing the best technology, or creating the most prosperity in the world.
Obama is offering a different and in some ways more difficult path. In his speech before a packed Congress he set forth a vision of the future in which government helps people navigate through what he admits is a complicated landscape of economic setbacks, tough new challenges, and rapidly changing circumstances.
Perhaps his most memorable moment in the speech was when he praised the Navy SEAL team that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. "All that mattered that day was the mission," he told a hushed chamber. "No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves." He said that should be a model for how Washington operates.
Among his signature proposals was a potential tax increase on the wealthy. Obama again embraced "the Buffett Rule" that requires millionaires such as investor Warren Buffett to pay at least the same tax rate as his or her secretary and other middle-class Americans. To make this point, the White House arranged for Debbie Bosanek, Buffett's secretary, to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address
Other proposals that Obama announced include:
—Passing a year-long extension of a payroll tax cut without delay.
—Mandating that all multi-national companies pay a basic minimum tax.