State of the Union

President Barack Obama promised to work to increase equality with or without congressional help in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Obama said he plans to increase students’ access to higher education and said Congress should restore education funding to keep the U.S. economy competitive.

“Federally funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smartphones,” Obama said. “That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research.”

History professor Jeremi Suri said he thinks Obama’s main goal is to increase equality.

“He wanted to make the case that he is working to increase equality and help those who have been left out in the gains made in the last few years,” Suri said. “That includes women, that includes immigrants.”

The speech follows Obama’s announcement of an executive order raising the federal minimum wage for government contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10.

Government professor Bruce Buchanan said Obama may use his power of executive order if he is unable to successfully pass bills through Congress.

“I think that he’s making [the executive order] because it’s part of his general sense that there needs to be opportunity for those on the low end of the spectrum and also because it’s going to be kind of a centerpiece of his new strategy of using executive orders since Congress is unresponsive to his request for legislation,” Buchanan said.

Sam Richardson, public affairs assistant professor, said he thinks Obama’s speech was unlike many of his other speeches.

“My sense of the speech was that it was [a] less providing sort of a grand vision like Obama sometimes does with his speeches,” Richardson said. “It was fairly short on specifics on what he was hoping Congress would do, and I think that was because he realizes that he does not have the support of Congress to push through that agenda.”

Richardson said he thought Obama would discuss the Affordable Care Act in greater depth.

“I was expecting that [the Affordable Care Act] would be a little more prominent than it was,” Richardson said. “I was surprised that he didn’t acknowledge or apologize for the botched rollout of the website.”

Richardson said users of the website still encounter issues and people who tried to sign up for coverage may not be insured.

“It’s clear that the website is not fully working and there are still challenges,” Richardson said. “There are going to be questions that come up about people who thought they were covered,” Richardson said. “Maybe their information didn’t go through the website.”

Suri said Obama avoided discussing issues such as the Affordable Care Act in more depth because it’s more difficult for him to claim control over those issues. Suri said Obama may have been intentionally vague when discussing individual privacy and the role of agencies such as the National Security Agency.

“I think he’s walking a fine line — he wants Americans to believe that he will protect their privacy,” Suri said. “At the same time, he wants to preserve the ability of these agencies to do their job.”

Suri said Obama implied he will go around Congress if he has to in order to increase equality for groups.

“He’s implying to his opponents that those at the top have done really well,” Suri said. “I do think that his clear and direct appeal to women is very important, and he did it on the basis of economic equality and on the argument that women need more voice in politics.”

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will press a politically-divided Congress to approve more tax increases and fewer spending cuts during a State of the Union address focused on stabilizing the middle class and repairing the still-wobbly economy.

The agenda Obama will outline Tuesday before a joint session of Congress will include more money for infrastructure, clean energy technologies, manufacturing jobs and expanding access to early childhood education.

The backdrop for Obama’s address will be a March 1 deadline for averting automatic across-the-board spending cuts. The president wants lawmakers to push that deadline back for a second time to create space for a larger deficit-reduction deal.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Declaring the American dream under siege, President Barack Obama delivered a populist challenge Tuesday night to shrink the gap between rich and poor, promising to tax the wealthy more and help jobless Americans get work and hang onto their homes. Seeking re-election and needing results, the president invited Republicans to join him but warned, “I intend to fight.”

In an emphatic State of the Union address, Obama said ensuring a fair shot for all Americans is “the defining issue of our time.” He said the economy is finally recovering from a deep and painful recession and he will fight any effort to return to policies that brought it low.

“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” he declared.

Obama outlined a vastly different vision for fixing the country than the one pressed by the Republicans confronting him in Congress and fighting to take his job in the November election. He pleaded for an active government that ensures economic fairness for everyone, just as his opponents demand that the government back off and let the free market rule.

Obama offered steps to help students afford college, a plan for more struggling homeowners to refinance their homes and tax cuts for manufacturers. He threw in politically appealing references to accountability, including warning universities they will lose federal aid if they don’t stop tuition from soaring.

Standing in front of a divided Congress, with bleak hope this election year for much of his legislative agenda, Obama spoke with voters in mind.

“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, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

At the core of Obama’s address was the improving but deeply wounded economy — the matter still driving Americans’ anxiety and the one likely to determine the next presidency.

“The state of our union is getting stronger,” Obama said, calibrating his words as millions remain unemployed. Implicit in his declaration that the American dream is “within our reach” was the recognition that, after three years of an Obama presidency, the country is not there yet.

He spoke of restoring basic goals: owning a home, earning enough to raise a family, putting a little money away for retirement.

“We can do this,” Obama said. “I know we can.” He said Americans are convinced that “Washington is broken,” but he also said it wasn’t too late to cooperate on important matters.

In a signature swipe at the nation’s growing income gap, Obama called for a new minimum tax rate of at least 30 percent on anyone making over $1 million. Many millionaires — including one of his chief rivals, Republican Mitt Romney — pay a rate less than that because they get most of their income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate.

“Now you can call this class warfare all you want,” Obama said, responding to a frequent criticism from the GOP presidential field. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

In a flag-waving defense of American power and influence abroad, Obama said the U.S. will safeguard its own security “against those who threaten our citizens, our friends and our interests.” On Iran, he said that while all options are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — an implied threat to use military force — “a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible.”

With Congress almost universally held in low regard, Obama went after an easy target in calling for reforms to keep legislators from engaging in insider trading and holding them to the same conflict-of-interest standards as those that apply to the executive branch.

With the foreclosure crisis on ongoing sore spot despite a number of administration housing initiatives over the past three years, Obama proposed a new program to allow homeowners with privately held mortgages to refinance at lower interest rates. Administration officials offered few details but estimated savings at $3,000 a year for average borrowers.

Obama proposed steps to crack down on fraud in the financial sector and mortgage industry, with a Financial Crimes Unit to monitor bankers and financial service professionals, and a separate special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive lending that led to the housing crisis.

At a time of tight federal budgets and heavy national debt, Obama found a ready source of money to finance his ideas: He proposed to devote half of the money no longer being spent on the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan to “do some nation-building right here at home,” to help create more jobs and increase competitiveness. The other half, he said, would go to help pay down the national debt.

Obama will follow up Tuesday night’s address with a three-day tour of five states key to his re-election bid. On Wednesday he’ll visit Iowa and Arizona to promote ideas to boost American manufacturing; on Thursday in Nevada and Colorado he’ll discuss energy, and in Michigan on Friday he’ll talk about college affordability, education and training.

Printed on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 as: Economy top concern for the State of the Union