WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama has laid out his plan to help balance America's economic inequality between the wealthy, middle class, and poor with a reformed tax code and other policies aimed at helping people improve their lives.
Speaking before a joint session of Congress in his annual State of the Union speech, Obama told a national television audience that "the defining issue of our time" is whether "the basic American promise"-- that with hard work, it's possible to raise a family, own a home, educate your children, and save enough for retirement -- is still available to all.
"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. 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," he said.
The speech gave Obama what will certainly be his biggest public audience before Americans go to the polls in November's presidential election and was an opportunity for him to outline his achievements and explain his vision for the future.
"The state of our union is getting stronger," he said, "And we’ve come too far to turn back now."
'America Is Back'
Declaring that "America is back" as a powerful player on the world stage, Obama said those who suggest the country is in decline or that U.S. influence has faded "don't know what they're talking about."
"From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies; to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back," he said.
"Opinions of America," he added, "are higher than they’ve been in years."
At home, however, Americans give Obama's mixed reviews for his three-plus years in the White House and poor marks for his handling of the sluggish economy. In the past few years, unemployment has remained around 9 percent and millions of Americans have lost their homes in foreclosure.
Obama's plan to bring about economic fairness rests heavily on his desire to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans and give ordinary earners a tax break. In his speech, he proposed that people making more than $1 million a year pay at least 30 percent in taxes.
Workers More Competitive
The opposition Republican Party fiercely opposes that idea. One of the party's top nominees for the White House, Mitt Romney, is a multimillionaire whose just-released tax returns show that he only paid around 14 percent in taxes on income of $21 million in 2010.
In the Republican response to Obama's speech, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said "no feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others."
The speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, the top congressional Republican, said the November election would be a referendum on the president's "failed" policies.
In his speech, Obama laid out a detailed plan to restore American jobs and business growth through a mix of policies that he asked the bitterly divided Congress to pass. He proposed legislation to make American workers more competitive with foreign workers through education and skills training, and policies to encourage job creation, like a tax system that reward businesses who keep their operations in the United States.
He also promised to pursue more bilateral trade deals with foreign governments and to punish countries with unfair trade practices.
For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to America.
Obama touched only briefly on his accomplishments in the foreign policy arena last year, but hit the highlights. For the first time in nine years, he said, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.
"For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to America. Most of Al-Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated, the Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home," he said.
"From this position of strength, we’ve begun to wind down the war in Afghanistan," he continued. "Ten thousand of our troops have come home. Twenty-three thousand more will leave by the end of this summer. This transition to Afghan lead will continue, and we will build an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, so that it is never again a source of attacks against America."
'Human Dignity Can't Be Denied'
Obama used that promise to pivot to the pro-democracy movements that have electrified many Arab countries over the last 15 months. Without mentioning the NATO mission in Libya that he successfully pushed for, Obama noted that Muammar Qaddafi -- "one of the world’s longest-serving dictators [and] a murderer with American blood on his hands -- is gone."
Obama said the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which for months has used deadly force against democracy supporters, will "soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied."
With the war in Iraq officially over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, this was the first presidential State of the Union speech in more than a decade that didn't have a strong emphasis on national security threats. Obama only spoke of Iran, whose nuclear program continues to raise alarm in the United Nations and among major world powers.
Washington's dual-track policy of negotiation and pressure has led to the strongest economic sanctions to date against the Islamic republic, but also to a rise in tensions not seen since the American hostage crisis of 1979.
Obama said "crippling sanctions" by a united international community will continue until Tehran proves that it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
And he repeated previous promises to "take no options off the table" – a reference to the possibility of military action. But he also said a peaceful resolution is still possible.
"If Iran changes course and meets its obligations," he said, "it can rejoin the community of nations."