Highlighting the nation's widening gap between rich and poor, Obama told a joint session of Congress that the nation must do more to reverse the decades-long slide of manufacturing jobs, streamline an unwieldy federal tax code and make college more affordable for millions of American workers.
"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 and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
The president's hourlong address included broad goals — such as new energy and education policies — but his words were inseparable from the politics of the 2012 presidential election. Obama renewed calls for higher taxes on the wealthy, for instance, playing directly on recent scrutiny faced by GOP rival Mitt Romney.
Republicans, who have had an increasingly sour relationship with the White House, dismissed the speech as politically driven. Maryland GOP Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett said Obama should have proposed a more bold tax plan and Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said "the president said nothing new tonight."
In broad terms, the president challenged universities to hold down tuition rates and threatened to withhold federal funding if they did not. He proposed a fee on banks that would pay to help homeowners refinance mortgages. He suggested increasing taxes on companies that ship jobs overseas and setting a lower rate for manufacturers that keep positions in the country.
White House officials insisted that the address was not a campaign speech, but the proposals — many of which would require congressional approval — were targeted directly at the same middle-class, independent voters who swept Obama into office in 2008 and who will decide in November whether to give him a second term.
"As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum," he said, touting recent signs that the economy is improving. "But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."
Mei Xu, president of Rockville-based Chesapeake Bay Candle, said the tax changes Obama proposed that are aimed at bringing back overseas jobs are "a very important step to create a culture that says, 'We are for small businesses.'" The candle maker, which manufacturers many of its products in Asia, opened a plant in Glen Burnie that is expected to bring 100 jobs to the area this year.
"The government has turned around and realized that we have a lot of blue-collar workers" looking for manufacturing work, Xu said.
The focus on the nation's struggling housing market was welcome news for Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who has been among the most vocal members of Congress on the foreclosure crisis. The president said he intends to craft legislation that would save "responsible" homeowners $3,000 a year by allowing them to refinance at lower rates.
Obama also vowed to create a unit of state and federal prosecutors to investigate abusive lending practices and "hold accountable those who broke the law."
Home values in Maryland communities reassessed by the state at the end of 2011 fell an average of 17 percent over three years, in part because of foreclosures.
"Voters don't feel like people were punished for all the harm that they did with regard to these mortgages," said Cummings. Still, he said he would have liked to see the president "go a little bit further" and said he would withhold judgment until he more details of the plan are available.
Cummings separately criticized Republicans for the partisan squabbles that nearly forced the government to shut down several times last year.
That heavily partisan dynamic on Capitol Hill is sure to affect the ideas Obama outlined Tuesday, just as it stymied the administration's jobs proposal last year. If anything, the ability to push legislation through a divided Washington will get tougher as the focus increasingly shifts to the presidential election.
Hours before Obama began his address, Romney released tax returns from 2010 documenting that he had earned nearly $22 million and paid an effective tax rate of about 14 percent. That rate is lower than many Americans pay because much of his income comes from investments, not salary.
Democrats, including Obama, have criticized the fact that the two forms of income are taxed differently, arguing that it gives an unfair advantage to the wealthy. The president proposed a minimum 30 percent tax rate for people making more than $1 million a year.
In the Republican response to Obama's speech Tuesday, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels criticized the administration for frequently drawing a distinction.