Obama draws battle line in key speech


WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, facing a tough fight for re-election, was using one of America’s grandest political events, the State of the Union address, to draw a battle line with Republicans over fairness and the free market.

The annual speech before Congress puts Obama in the spotlight Tuesday after he has been largely overshadowed for months by the fierce race of Republicans vying to be his opponent in November.

Tens of millions of people were expected to watch Obama sell his vision for another four years in office.

In excerpts of his speech released in advance, Ob ama attacked income inequality and offered his own economic revival plan built upon boosting manufacturing, energy and education. He warned Republicans in Congress that he will fight them if they try to obstruct him or restore an economy gutted by “outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits.”

“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. 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,” he said.

In the formal Republican response, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said extremism by the Obama administration is stifling economic growth and is a “pro-poverty policy.” Excerpts of Daniels’ remarks also were released in advance.

The comments by both sides reflect the unmistakably different views of the economy and the role of government that are shaping up ahead of the November vote.

Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich blame Obama for what they see as reckless spending, high taxes and out-of-control government regulations that stifle growth.

Obama casts government as a force that can help people get a shot at a better life. He accuses Republicans of defending the interests of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

His timing could not have been better for a message about income inequality. Earlier Tuesday, Romney released his tax returns under political pressure, revealing that he earned nearly US$22 million in 2010 and paid an effective tax rate of about 14 percent. That is a lesser rate than many Americans pay because of how investment income is taxed in the United States.

Obama, though, has his own considerable challenges three years into his term. Polling shows Americans are divided about Obama’s overall job performance but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.

The economy is improving, but unemployment still stands at the high rate of 8.5 percent. Government debt stands at US$15.2 trillion, a record, and up from US$10.6 trillion when he took office.

Given Obama’s poor relations with congressional Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, it is unlikely that he will get any major initiatives approved this year. Obama has tried to take the offensive with a slew of executive actions that didn’t require congressional votes.

Even before Obama’s address, Romney called the speech “another chapter in the misguided policies of the last three years _ and the failed leadership of one man.”

Despite the political atmosphere in Washington, the scene is expected to have at least one unifying touch. Outgoing congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt last year, is expected to attend with her colleagues. Her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, was attending as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.

Obama’s tone was under as much scrutiny as his proposals.

He was aiming to find the right balances: offering outreach to Republicans while sharpening his competing vision, outlining re-election themes without overtly campaigning and pledging to work with Congress even as he presses a campaign to act without it.