Resurgent Obama takes on hostile Congress
President Barack Obama will use a strong economy and better approval ratings as a platform to challenge hostile Republican lawmakers in his State of the Union address Tuesday, teeing up coming legislative and election battles.
With just two years left in office, Obama will outline plans to move beyond the Great Recession, specifically tackling inequality by increasing taxes on the rich and lowering the burden for the middle class.
Obama's Republican opponents say that is little more than populist class warfare and will use their majority in both houses of Congress to make sure the plans never become law.
This will be Obama's first State of the Union address since Democrats lost control of the Senate in November mid-term elections.
But Obama -- emboldened by faster economic growth, strong polling and a string of political victories -- wants to force Republicans to pay a political price for opposing him by appearing anti-poor.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll saw Obama's approval rating increase nine points to 50 percent, while 44 percent thought he was doing a bad job, a 10-point drop in disapproval.
Unemployment has dropped below six percent, the stock market is back near record levels, growth is at its highest in 11 years and gas prices have plummeted for motorists.
Tuesday's address foreshadows the battles to come both in Congress and on the campaign trail, as Republican and Democrat hopefuls limber up for the battle to replace Obama in 2016 elections.
Even before the speech, Obama's foes have accused him of using this bump in popularity to seek out wedge issues that split voters and rally Democrats.
"The American people aren't demanding talking-point proposals designed to excite the base but not designed to pass," said top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell Tuesday.
"They said they're ready to see more constructive cooperation, especially on bipartisan jobs initiatives."
The White House argues that Obama's plan is necessary because the "tax code is unfair, allowing the rich to play by different rules."
"The 400 richest taxpayers paid an average tax rate below 17 percent in 2012, lower than many middle-class families," the White House said in a briefing paper on the plan.
Under Obama's reforms, extra taxes on capital gains targeting just the wealthiest 0.1 percent of people -- those earning more than $2 million per year -- would generate 80 percent of new revenue.
"By ensuring those at the top pay their fair share in taxes, the president's plan responsibly pays for investments we need to help middle class families get ahead," the paper said.
This would notably be used to lower college fees for poorer students, but it was ridiculed by Republican budget hawks.
"This is not a serious proposal," scoffed Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Congressman Paul Ryan, a former vice-presidential candidate and lead Republican budget negotiator.
"We lift families up and grow the economy with a simpler, flatter tax code, not big tax increases to pay for more Washington spending," Buck argued, in remarks echoed across his party.
Obama is likely to argue his plan is about taking the country forward after a brutal recession that overshadowed his presidency.
"Over the last six years, we have been weighed down by the legacy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said ahead of Tuesday's speech.
"Because of the incredible grit and resilience of the American people, America is now in a place to really turn the page."
In recent months, he has used his executive authority -- opponents would argue stretched it to the limit -- to circumvent Republican opposition, imposing and opposing some policies by decree.
The new Congress has made one of its first priorities to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, an idea Obama has said he will veto out of hand if experts say it will damage the environment.
On the foreign policy front, he has announced moves to normalize relations with Cuba and pushed on with talks with Iran on its disputed nuclear program, in defiance of conservatives.
Polls suggest Americans support the Cuban outreach and Obama will hammer home his advantage by inviting newly freed US citizen Alan Gross, a former prisoner in Cuba, to the speech.
Republicans have countered by inviting Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, to underscore Cuba's poor human rights record.
Coincidentally -- or not -- the State of the Union falls the day before US envoys begin new talks in Havana on restoring ties, and Obama will push Congress to end the trade embargo.
He won't get everything he wants, and much angry politicking lies ahead in the year before his next and last State of the Union speech.