In a speech tinged with defiance, Obama touted the nation’s economic “breakthroughs” following the recession – “that’s good news, people,” he said with a wink – and made middle class tax cuts a centerpiece of his annual address to the nation.
“The verdict is clear,” the president said. “Middle class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”
“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 said. “This country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
On what one senior adviser called an “SOTU Spoilers” tour ahead of Tuesday's speech, the president previewed many of his taking points – from free community college tuition to lower mortgage insurance premiums and paid leave for workers and families. Tuesday night, he exhorted the Republican-led Congress to take his agenda seriously.
“Let’s stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national priority that it is,” the president said, calling high-quality child care “a must-have,” “not a nice-to-have.”
As for raising the minimum wage, “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it," Obama continued. "If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Fresh off American contractor Alan Gross’ release from a Cuban jail and the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would work to restore diplomatic relations, the president also urged Congress to “begin the work of ending the embargo” against the island nation.
“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” he said. “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere.”
He also called upon Americans and the international community to protect the planet from further climate change.
“I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists,” Obama said. “But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists.”
He warned of rising ocean levels, more intense heat waves, and perilous droughts and floods, vowing, “I will not let this Congress endanger that health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.”
And in the wake of a global crackdown on terror, President Obama also took aim against the “bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
“Tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” Obama said – his strongest terms to date. (Last November, Obama said he would begin "engaging Congress" for that authorization).
The president – earlier this month criticized for failing to appear at a unity rally following three days of terror attacks in Paris – promised to "stand united with people around the world who've been targeted by terrorists," and warned, "we reserve the right to act unilaterally ... to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies."
In keeping with tradition, President Obama referred to several of the guests invited to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box, including astronaut Scott Kelly, who is about to spend a year in space aboard the International Space Station.
“Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars,” the president said. “In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. Good luck, Captain – and make sure to Instagram it.”
And, as usual, the president called for bipartisan cooperation.
"I have no more campaigns to run," the president said, adding, with a smirk, "I know, because I won both of them."
Alluding to his famous “there is not a black America or a white America” speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention, the president told the American people that today’s partisan bickering isn’t intractable.
“I think the cynics are wrong,” he said. “I still believe that together, we can do great things.”
“Understand: a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears” he said. “Let’s have arguments – but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.”
ABC News' Mary Bruce, Devin Dwyer and Jon Garcia contributed to this report.