WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is promising the nation an economy that gives a shot to everyone and not just the rich, using Tuesday night's State of the Union address to draw an election-year battle line with Republicans over fairness and the free market. Driving everything about the speech: jobs, including his own.
Overshadowed for weeks by the fierce race of the Republicans seeking his job, for one night Obama had a grand stage to himself.
He planned to pitch his plans to a bitterly divided Congress and to a country underwhelmed by his handling of the economy. Targeting anxiety about a slumping middle class, Obama was calling for the rich to pay more in taxes. Every proposal was to be underlined by the idea that hard work and responsibility still count.
Tens of millions of people were expected to watch on television, turning an always-political speech into Obama's best chance yet to sell his vision for another four years.
For an incumbent on the attack about income inequality, the timing could not be better.
Ahead of Obama's 9 p.m. EST speech, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney released his tax returns under political pressure, revealing that he earned nearly $22 million in 2010 and paid an effective tax rate of about 14 percent. That's a lesser rate than many Americans pay because of how investment income is taxed in the United States.
Obama, though, has his own considerable messaging challenges three years into his term.
The economy is improving, but unemployment still stands at the high rate of 8.5 percent. More than 13 million people are out of work. Government debt stands at $15.2 trillion, a record, and up from $10.6 trillion when he took office. Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
Obama's relations with Republicans in Congress are poor, casting huge doubt on any of his major ideas for the rest of this year. Republicans control the House and have the votes to stall matters in the Senate, although Obama has tried to take the offensive since a big jobs speech in September and a slew of executive actions ever since.
"It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment even before tonight's speech is delivered," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "The goal isn't to conquer the nation's problems. It's to conquer Republicans. The goal isn't to prevent gridlock, but to guarantee it."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has called the themes of Obama's speech a "pathetic" rehash of unhelpful policies.
The State of the Union remains one of the most closely watched moments in American politics. Despite the political atmosphere in Washington, the scene is expected to have at least one unifying touch. Outgoing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt a year ago, is expected to attend with her colleagues. Her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, was attending as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.
Obama's tone was under as much scrutiny as his proposals.
He was aiming to find all the right balances: offering outreach to Republicans while sharpening his competing vision, outlining re-election themes without overtly campaigning and pledging to work with Congress even as he presses a campaign to act without it.
The context was set not just by the re-election year, but by the awful past year of partisan breakdowns in Washington. The government neared both a shutdown and, even worse, a default on its obligations for the first time in history.
Less than 10 months before Election Day, the presidential race is shaping up as a contest between unmistakably different views of the economy and the role of government.
Obama is campaigning on the idea of helping people at least get a fair shot at a job, a house, a career and a better life. Republicans say he and his philosophy have become a crushing burden on free enterprise and that the president is resorting to what amounts to class warfare to get elected again.
Obama's speech was to feature manufacturing, clean energy, education and American values. He was to unveil new proposals to address the housing crisis that has left many people trapped, and he planned to promote steps to make college education more affordable.
The president was planning a traditional rundown on the state of American security and foreign policy — and a reminder that he kept a promise to end the Iraq war.
But his driving focus was to secure faith in the economic recovery and in voters' confidence that he is getting the country on the right path.
Obama planned to renew his call for his "Buffet Rule" — a principle that millionaires should not pay a lower tax rate than typical workers. While middle-income filers fall in the 15 or 25 percent bracket, and millionaires face a 35 percent tax bracket, those who get their income from investments — not a paycheck — pay 15 percent.
The president named his idea after billionaire Warren Buffet, who says it is unfair that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. The White House invited Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, to attend the State of the Union as a special guest.
Obama was to outline a tax system "where everybody is paying their fair share," said senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
And then for three days following his speech, Obama will promote his ideas in five states key to his re-election bid. On Wednesday he'll visit Iowa and Arizona to promote ideas to boost American manufacturing; on Thursday in Nevada and Colorado he'll discuss energy, and in Michigan on Friday he'll talk about college affordability, education and training.
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Polling shows Americans are divided about Obama's overall job performance but unsatisfied with his handling of the economy.
The speech Tuesday night comes just one week before the Florida Republican primary that could help set the trajectory for the rest of the race.
Romney, caught up in a tight contest with a resurgent Newt Gingrich, commented in advance to Obama's speech.
"Tonight will mark another chapter in the misguided policies of the last three years — and the failed leadership of one man," Romney said from Florida.