WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday declared America has turned the page on years of war and economic hardship, in a populist-tinged State of the Union address that set up the battle to succeed him.
But Republicans quickly said the speech was more about politics than leadership.
Emboldened by a stronger economy and better approval ratings, Obama called for a new chapter in US history that ushers in a fairer economy with a better shake for the middle class.
“We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” he said.
“It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”
He heralded the “growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production” that have also helped revive his political fortunes as his time in the White House nears its end.
For six years Obama’s presidency was often subsumed by an economic crisis that stymied efforts to narrow inequality and put other liberal policy priorities on the back burner.
Appealing to Democrats determined to retain the White House in 2016, Obama on Tuesday called for an increase in the minimum wage, equal pay for women and tax breaks for the middle class.
Drawing a stark contrast with tax-averse Republicans, he dared his foes to oppose proposed tax hikes for the rich that would pay for middle class breaks.
“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.”
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he asked.
Obama’s Republican opponents have branded such talk as little more than class warfare and will use their majority in both houses of Congress to make sure the plans never become law.
Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who was tasked with rebutting Obama’s speech, said Americans are still suffering from “stagnant wages and lost jobs.”
She also decried Obama’s “failed policies” and a “stale mind-set” that led to “political talking points, not serious solutions”.
Mitt Romney, passed and potential future Republican presidential candidate, said that, “True to form, the President in his State of the Union speech is more interested in politics than in leadership.”
He added: “More intent on winning elections than on winning progress, he ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favours smaller government and lower taxes.”
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, said “Tonight, America saw a powerful demonstration that it is time to move on beyond President Barack Obama. Just two months ago we had a national election, in which the American people spoke loud and clear and said the path we’re on isn’t working. The American people said the Obama economy isn’t working, millions are hurting, and we want a different path.”
Hillary Clinton, also expected to run for president, said in a tweet minutes after the speech, “BarackObama #SOTU pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class.”
In recent months, Obama has used his executive authority – opponents would argue he has stretched it to the limit – to circumvent Republican opposition, imposing and opposing some policies by decree.
Many of his efforts have focused overseas, including attempts to improve relations with America’s most implacable foes.
On Tuesday, he redoubled calls to end the half-century-old embargo on Cuba and vowed to veto any move to put further sanctions on Iran.
“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere,” he said.
Polls suggest Americans support the Cuban outreach and Obama hammered home his advantage by inviting Alan Gross, a former US prisoner in Cuba, who whispered “thank you, thank you” during the speech.
On Iran, Obama warned that any move to impose new sanctions could scupper delicate negotiations aimed at reaching a complex nuclear deal.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails ,” he said.