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Obama aims to influence debate in State of the Union speech

January 20, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama planned to use his second-to-last State of the Union address to Congress to maintain his influence in American politics as the unofficial campaign to choose his successor has already begun.

Obama will be utilizing one of his biggest platforms, a speech that will be nationally televised to tens of millions of Americans on Tuesday evening. He will outline a plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans while offering broad economic benefits to the middle class. By highlighting the issue of economic inequality, Obama aims to drive a debate over middle-class economics that could be critical for the 2016 presidential campaign.

The president came out of his party’s bruising November election losses with a surprising burst of activity and a bump in approval ratings, but there are big questions about whether he will be able to sustain that momentum in the face of opposition from the new Republican-controlled Congress.

The White House has no hope of the tax proposal becoming law, but Obama’s proposal could put tax-averse congressional Republicans in the unappealing spot of blocking measures that would offer broad economic benefits to the middle class.

Potential Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have been talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities.

With the 2016 presidential race heating up, the intense partisan battle that has dominated Obama’s first six years in office is only growing fiercer. In the early days of the new session of Congress, Obama already has threatened to veto five pieces of legislation from emboldened Republicans who want to undo many of the key accomplishments of his presidency. Targets include Obama’s executive actions on immigration, his health care reform law and post-financial crisis regulations.

The president’s advisers argue that the debate over income equality is one that Democrats have won previously, including in Obama’s victory over Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign and a fight with Congress that led to the raising of George W. Bush-era income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

Obama’s plan would increase the capital gains tax rate on couples making more than $500,000 per year to 28 percent, the same level as under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The top capital gains rate has already been raised from 15 percent to 23.8 percent during Obama’s presidency.

Administration officials said much of the $320 billion in new taxes and fees generated over a decade would be used for measures aimed at helping the middle class, including a $500 tax credit for some families with two spouses working and a $60 billion program to make community college free.

Obama is also asking lawmakers to increase paid leave for workers.

In keeping with State of the Union tradition, first lady Michelle Obama will watch the speech alongside invited guests whose stories bring to life some of the policies the president will tout.

Among the guests are Alan Gross, who was released from a Cuban prison last month as part of Obama’s decision to normalize relations with the communist island nation.

The effort to control Ebola is expected to be among the foreign policy matters Obama addresses. While the president is not likely to make any major foreign policy announcements, he is expected to tout the formal end of the Afghan war, update Americans on the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and urge lawmakers not to enact new sanctions on Iran while the U.S. and its partners are in the midst of nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic.

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Associated Press writers Steven R. Hurst and Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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