WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama outlined an aggressive agenda in his State of the Union address Tuesday, drawing sharpcontrastswith the new Republican majority in Congress and setting the stagefor a tumultuous two years leading into the next presidential election.
Buoyed by a stronger economy and rising poll numbers, Obama marked the beginning of his seventh year in office by attempting to move the political discussion in Washington away from the Great Recession and to refocus attention on income inequality and the concerns of the middle class, such as college tuition, child care and retirement savings.
Proposals to increase taxes for the wealthy and provide free community college to many students underscored the more populist approach the administration has adopted since voters last year put Republicans in control of the Senate and expanded the GOP's majority in the House.
Few of the ideas Obama laid out are expected to gain traction on Capitol Hill, but Democrats hope they will set the tone heading into 2016.
"At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth," Obama said. "It's now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come."
At the center of the address was a package of tax changes that would raise the capital gains rate from 23.8 percent to 28 percent — the same, the White House repeatedly noted, as during the Reagan administration. Obama would use $320 billion raised from that and other increases to offset tax breaks for child care, retirement savings and married couples with dual incomes.
Congressional Republicans dismissed the "tax the rich" mantra as political messaging, and suggested the speech undermined efforts to negotiate a deal on broader changes to the nation's byzantine tax laws — one of the few areas of policy in whichmembers of both parties have said compromise might be achievable this year.
"Unfortunately, we have heard it all before," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress and a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "He made it clear that he wants to raise taxes again, while continuing to spend even more money we do not have."
Democrats countered that Obama was simply laying down a vision on how to navigate the treacherous issue of tax reform, not drawing hard lines they expect GOP negotiators to accept.
"As a practical matter it will be used as a yardstick to judge the Republican tax reform proposals, and other proposals they may have," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee. "The practical effect is that [this is] a goal line that will help…steer us into a bipartisan result."
The address comes after a year in which Obama frequently showed a willingness to make end runs around a divided and often gridlocked Congress. The "pen and phone" strategy Obamaoutlined in hisState of the Union last year manifested itself in far-reaching executive actions this past fall on immigration and the nation's relationship with Cuba.
Obama mentioned both of those issues Tuesday, repeating his call for lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation to deal with some 11 million people in the country illegally. He also touted his administration's sweeping planto re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba for the first time in five decades.
Alan Gross, an aid worker who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and was freed last month after months of secret negotiations between Washington and Havana,watched the speech as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama. Gross grew up in Baltimore, studied at the University of Maryland and lived in Potomac while he was traveling to Cuba as a subcontractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Republicans have criticized Obama for acting unilaterally on both immigration and Cuba policy. GOP leaders are preparing for showdown with the White House over a bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security while attempting to block spending to implement the president's effort to delay deportations for millions of undocumentedimmigrants.
More than four in 10 Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with the nation's economy in a Gallup poll last week, up from just 28 percent a year ago. Other polls have suggested Obama's approval is higher than it has been in almost two years, in large part because of economic growth.
Obama declared that the outlook is bright for an American comeback. The theme has shown up repeatedly in recent weeks as the White House embarked on an unusual strategy of openly discussing the policy initiatives the president will introduce, on such issues as housing, education and tax reform, rather than unveiling them during the speech.
"Today, thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives," Obama said. "We don't just want everyone to share in America's success — we want everyone to contribute to our success."
GOP Leaders chose Sen. Joni Ernst, the recently elected Iowa Republican, to offer the party's formal response on Tuesday. In excerpted remarks released before she spoke, Ernst cast the economy in less celebratory terms.
"We see our neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs," she said. "We see the hurt caused by canceled healthcare plans and higher monthly insurance bills. We see too many moms and dads put their own dreams on hold while growing more fearful about the kind of future they'll be able to leave to their children."
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Obama said a proposal announced earlier this month to provide up to two years of free community college for some students was an effort to stretch middle-class wages. But neither the president nor aides provided additional detail on Tuesday for how that, or some of the other ideas, would be funded.
Obama noted racial tensions sparked by police interactions with residents in Ferguson and New York and suggested there should be a bipartisan way to ensure police are safe while also understanding "a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed."
The president said such understanding is needed to find a bipartisan approach to reforming the country's criminal justice system.
"I have no more campaigns to run," Obama said. "My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I've had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America."
Tribune Newspapers' Washington bureau contributed to this article.