WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pledged on Tuesday night to use government power to balance the scale between America’s rich and the rest of the public, seeking to present an election-year choice between his continued leadership toward an economy “built to last” and a Republican argument that the country would benefit from less federal intervention.
In his final State of the Union address before he faces the voters, and at a critical moment of his presidency, Obama showcased the extent to which he will try to contrast his core economic principles with those of his Republican rivals in a time of deep economic uncertainty. With many Americans disappointed with the state of the economy and the president’s handling of it, he sought to persuade Americans that his proposed solutions remain more in tune with independent voters than much of the Republican platform.
Ordinary Americans, the president said, have the right to expect, if not a helping hand from their leaders, then at least a field in which everyone plays by the same set of rules.
“You can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said. “Most Americans would call that common sense.” He characterized the looming choice as one between whether “a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by” or his own vision — “where everyone gets a fair shot.”
In returning to his 2008 campaign motif of these being “not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values,” and presenting a long list of domestic economic proposals, Obama’s address was meant to show a president still interested in governing and a leader putting the interests of the U.S. middle class at the top of his agenda.
Many of his proposals centered on changes to the tax code, including limiting deductions for companies that move jobs overseas, rewarding companies that return jobs to the United States and increasing taxes on wealthy Americans.
Taking aim at financial institutions that engaged in risky lending practices that many believe tipped the country into financial crisis, Obama said he was asking Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending. The new unit, he said, “will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”
Obama also proposed a new trade enforcement unit that would add to the number of government investigators pursuing unfair trade practices and that would be responsible for filing lawsuits against foreign countries, namely China. He called for new legislation to make it easier for Americans to refinance their homes if their interest rates are above market rates. And he proposed a bound-to-be-contentious way to allocate any savings from ending the war in Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan: by using half of the war savings on infrastructure projects and the other half to reduce the deficit.