WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2012— -- President Barack Obama tonight presented an argument for his presidency and a second term with a State of the Union address that outlined a sweeping vision for American exceptionalism sustained by an economy rooted in "fairness."
"The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important," Obama said of the need to enact an agenda that bolsters the middle class.
"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.
"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values," he added. "We have to reclaim them."
Obama's moment in the spotlight and on the national stage came at a crucial moment in his first term, with the economy showing continued signs of progress, his job approval ratings up slightly, and his Republican rivals divided over choosing their nominee.
Obama seized the opportunity to highlight his accomplishments over the past three years and "set the tone" for his re-election campaign, tacitly framing the November election as a choice between two starkly different political philosophies, rather than a referendum on his controversial tenure.
The president accentuated themes from a fiery populist speech he delivered in Kansas in December, telling his audience because of his economic and foreign policies "the state of our Union is getting stronger."
"We've come too far to turn back now," he said.
At the heart of Obama's case for the restoration of "American values" was formally imposing the so-called Buffett Rule -- the idea that millionaires and billionaires should not pay a lower percentage rate in taxes than members of the middle class.
"You can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense," he said, calling for a new legal requirement that Americans making more than $1 million a year pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent.
The secretary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett was a the guest of first lady Michelle Obama this evening so as to illustrate that point made by her boss. (See the full list of guests in the first lady's box.)
Obama also discussed proposals to boost American manufacturing, invigorate energy production and expand the skill sets of U.S. workers that included a series of new taxes and new spending measures as well as at least two new government departments.
He called for an end to tax deductions for housing, health care, retirement and child care for millionaires and the elimination of federal subsidies, such as food stamps, for the same, an idea put forth by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Adding details to an idea he hinted at last week, Obama called for an end to tax incentives for companies that move work overseas or shut down their factories, while proposing new, lower overall tax rates for U.S. manufacturers, particularly those that relocate factories to economically hard-hit communities.
"It's time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America," he said. "Send me these tax reforms, and I'll sign them right away."