During his campaign-style State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama attacked economic inequality by mentioning the word "fair" nine times.
"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number barely get by," said Obama, providing a glimpse of his main 2012 reelection motif. "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."
It was a speech light on the debt and deficit (two topics that dominated Congress last year). It was a speech that contained just a single mention of entitlement reform (and that came with zero specifics). Instead, Obama, arguing that the American dream is in danger, presented an economic agenda that included empowering government to do more to ensure fairness for all.
The president also renewed his call for a new minimum tax rate on the wealthy.
"Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes," said Obama, referring to billionaire Warren Buffett, who has said his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does because his income from investments is taxed at a lower rate. "In fact, if you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up."
Obama's vision provides a stark contrast to conservatives, who argue that a government-directed push for fairness only pits Americans against one another.
"No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others," said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who offered the formal Republican response Tuesday night. "As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat. If we drift, quarreling and paralyzed over a Niagara of debt, we will all suffer, regardless of income, race, gender, or other category."
In his address Obama, perhaps striking a hopeful tone in an effort to recapture the theme of hope that propelled him to the White House four years ago, claimed that the "state of our union is getting stronger."
But Daniels, in his Republican address, countered that one-in-five men of prime working age and nearly half of all persons under 30 are out of work.
"When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true," Daniels said. "The president's grand experiment in trickle-down government has held back rather than sped economic recovery. He seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars."
Indeed, many facts contradict Obama's claim that the nation is stronger: The unemployment rate has been at 8 percent or higher for 35 straight months; food stamp usage has jumped 46 percent since Obama took office with a record 45.8 million Americans now using them; and the national debt stands at a record $15.2 trillion, up from $10.6 trillion when Obama took office.
Obama, quoting Abraham Lincoln, claimed in his speech a belief that "government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. The point is, we should all want a smarter, more effective government."
But Obama also made pitches for several new government programs for job training and employment initiatives. He also announced the creation of a new federal mortgage crisis unit (to be headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman) and a new trade enforcement unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trade practices.
Highlighting his campaign strategy, Obama used Tuesday's address to set up Congress as the villain behind most of the country's malaise.
"I intend to fight obstruction with action," said Obama, who has made a habit of bypassing Congress recently by signing a slew of executive orders, "and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place. With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow."
Obama also tried to reach out to the nation's independent and disaffected voters during his address, saying that, in effect, he is with them when it comes to being frustrated with Washington.
"We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction," he said.
The prime-time address, with the theme "built to last," gave Obama an opportunity to take over a political stage that has been dominated by the Republican presidential candidates.
But, in advance of Obama's speech, the top GOP contenders, likely relieved to take a break from verbally assaulting each other, took turns attacking the president's message.
Mitt Romney said that Obama's speech "sounds less like 'built to last' and more like doomed to fail." Newt Gingrich, predicted that the "president will explain it was all George W. Bush's fault. This is the fourth year of his presidency, he needs to get over it."