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Obama sets progressive agenda in State of the Union speech

January 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, undaunted by the new Republican majority in Congress, unveiled an ambitious agenda in his State of the Union speech, proposing tax increases for the wealthiest Americans coupled with more breaks for the country’s shrinking middle class. Republican leaders quickly rejected Obama’s economic proposals.

Obama’s nationally televised address Tuesday night to Congress was less the traditional laundry list of new proposals and more an attempt to sell a broadly optimistic story of an American economy emerging from the “shadow of crisis.” Obama said it was time for Americans to “turn the page” on years of economic troubles, terrorism and lengthy wars.

Obama’s address marked the first time in his presidency that he stood before a Congress controlled by Republicans, who grabbed the Senate from Democrats in the November elections. Yet the shift in the political landscape has also been accompanied by economic growth and a soaring stock market, as the U.S. continued its climb out of the Great Recession that greeted Obama when he took office in 2009.

The White House is hoping that by boasting about economic progress, Obama will strengthen his credibility and remain relevant as he heads into the final two years of his presidency. Obama is seeking to gain leverage over Republicans who want to undo his unilateral initiatives that normalized relations with Cuba, protected millions from deportation and created new environmental regulations to combat climate change.

The president launched that surprising burst of executive actions after his party’s bruising November election defeat. Now that his once-sagging approval ratings are on the rise, a confident Obama sees little incentive in acquiescing to Republican demands. He has already vowed to veto several Republican legislative measures.

While Obama appealed for “better politics” in Washington and pledged to work with Republicans, he touted bread-and-butter Democratic economic proposals and vowed to veto Republican efforts to dismantle his signature achievements —especially his law that made health care nearly universal and financial regulations passed after the economy nearly collapsed in 2008.

“We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” Obama said. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.”

Democrats seated on one side of the House of Representatives chamber repeatedly rose to their feet and applauded the president, while Republicans who intend to vote down his proposals sat silently.

The president sought out more common ground on foreign policy, pledging to work with Congress on a new authorization for military action against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, as well as legislation to guard against cyberattacks. In a rare move away from his own party, Obama also renewed his call for fast-tracking free trade agreements with Asia and Europe, generating more applause from pro-trade Republicans than skeptical Democrats.

Obama used one of his biggest platforms, a speech that was nationally televised to tens of millions of Americans, to highlight the issue of growing economic inequality, a critical marker for the next presidential campaign that will choose his successor.

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama asked. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

Answering his own question, Obama said: “So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”

The centerpiece of Obama’s economic proposals was an increase in the capital gains rate on couples making more than $500,000 annually, to 28 percent, coupled with higher taxes on some estates and a fee on the roughly 100 U.S. financial firms with assets of more than $50 billion.

Much of the $320 billion that would be raised would be ticketed for the middle class, in the form of a $500 tax credit for some families with two working spouses, expansion of the child care tax credit and a $60 billion program to make community college free.

Republicans were quick to reject the president’s proposals, which seemed more about giving his Democratic Party a platform in the 2016 election than outlining a realistic legislative agenda.

House Speaker John Boehner said, “Finding common ground is what the American people sent us here to do, but you wouldn’t know it from the president’s speech tonight.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, a new senator from Iowa who delivered the official Republican response to Obama’s speech, painted a less rosy picture of the economy.

“We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs. We see the hurt caused by canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills,” said Ernst.

While the economy dominated the president’s address, Obama also promoted his recent decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Havana and urged lawmakers to begin ending the trade embargo with Cuba that he said was “long past its expiration date.”

Among the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama was Alan Gross, the American man who spent five years in a Cuban prison and was released as part of the deal to end the freeze between Washington and Havana. In a nod to the concerns of Cuban dissidents and pro-democracy advocates, Boehner’s guest was Jorge Luis García Pérez, who spent 17 years in a Cuban prison.

Obama appeared at ease throughout the address, adlibbing at times and responding to the audience reaction. As he neared the end of his speech, he declared, “I have no more campaigns to run.” As Republicans erupted in laughter, Obama retorted, “I know, because I won both of them.”

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Nedra Pickler, Josh Lederman, Jim Kuhnhenn and Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.

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