Couching his argument in terms of fairness, President Obama proposed a range of policy initiatives Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, asking Congress to shift a heavier tax burden onto the very wealthiest earners, subsidize domestic manufacturers and energy producers, and crackdown on corporations and political interests that have exploited the nation in its dark economic hour.
"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," he 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."
Obama called for those making a gross income of more $1 million a year to pay a minimum rate of 30%, enumerating a policy principle for the so-called "Buffett rule," which was named for the billionaire Omaha investor who famously complained that he pays a lower rate than his secretary. The proposal, which has a slim chance of making it through a divided Congress, would predominantly affect those who currently pay a 15% rate on investment earnings, and would also deny mega-earners any targeted tax breaks or credits.
"You can call this class warfare all you want," he said, directly addressing Republican critics. "But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense."
In addition to once again proposing alternative energy tax credits, Obama put a renewed focus on natural gas and domestic manufacturing. He proposed subsidies for manufacturers willing to open plants in hard-hit communities, as well as a new tax on overseas profits. He worked in paeans to immigrations reform, a new housing refinancing program to be funded by a fee on large banks, and restrictions on congressional lobbying and trading. As with other policy initiatives put before a joint session of Congress in the last two years, these proposals will likely have more life in Executive Branch whitepapers than in committee rooms on Capitol Hill.
Not everything Obama spoke about required congressional action. In a potential effort to sew up liberal dissent on a looming mortgage fraud settlement between state attorneys general, the federal government and the banks, Obama announced the creation of new law enforcement unit tasked with investigating securitization fraud, headed by New York AG Eric Schnereiderman, who broke from the settlement talks last year over a disagreement about potential immunity for banks in that matter. If the commission seemed like a political gesture, it was one of many in the speech.
Though never mentioned explicitly, signs of Obama's looming re-election campaign were everywhere. He directly addressed the claims of Republican front runner Mitt Romney, a big investment earner who could see his tax rate doubled by the Buffett rule, that "envy" drives the President's tax policies. "We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it," Obama said. "When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That's not right."
The plights or triumphs of swing states were ubiquitous, and Obama pledged to rejuvenate industry in "Cleveland (Ohio, 18 electoral votes) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, 20 electoral votes) and Raleigh (North Carolina, 15 electoral votes)." Orlando, Louisville, Charlotte, Toledo and Chicago all got mentions too, but none as many as Detroit. His decision to bailout auto companies was implicitly celebrated in a long section of the speech dedicated to their subsequent rejuvenation. "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity," he said. "And tonight, the American auto industry is back."
The speech was also bookended by a narrative on the power of cooperation evident in the U.S. military. In Obama's telling, this collaborative spirit, a model for the nation, led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, which just happens to be his crowning foreign policy achievement. Romney, who has accused Obama of being an apologist overseas and declinist at home, was again the ghost in the room when Obama said, "Anyone who tells you America is in decline or our influence has waned doesn't know what they are talking about."
It was moments like this that underscored the tension in the President's argument. Obama was making an aggressive case for the merits of his first term, while trying to stoke a sense of urgency about his second. The nation was neither in disrepair nor perfect mint. And that view was reflected in Obama's tweaking of the State of the Union's most famous line: "The state of our Union is getting stronger," he said. "And we've come too far to turn back now."