WASHINGTON — Declaring the American dream under siege, President Barack Obama called Tuesday night for a flurry of help for a hurting middle class and higher taxes on millionaires, delivering a State of the Union address filled with re-election themes. Restoring a fair shot for all, Obama said, is "the defining issue of our time."
Obama outlined a vastly different vision for fixing the country than the one pressed by the Republicans challenging him in Congress and fighting to take his job. He pleaded for an active government that ensures economic fairness for everyone, as his opponents demand that the government back off and let the free market rule.
Standing in front of a divided Congress, with bleak hope this election year for his legislative agenda, Obama spoke with voters in mind.
"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," Obama said. "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."
A rare wave of unity splashed over the House chamber at the start. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, survivor of an assassination attempt one year ago, received sustained applause from her peers and hugs from many. Obama, too, embraced her as he made his way to the front.
Lawmakers leapt to their feet when Obama said near the start of his speech that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, killed by a raid authorized by the president, will no longer threaten America.
At the core of Obama's speech was the improving but deeply wounded economy — the matter still driving Americans' anxiety and the one likely to determine the next presidency.
"The state of our union is getting stronger," Obama said, calibrating his words as millions remain unemployed. Implicit in his declaration that the American dream is "within our reach" was the recognition that, after three years of an Obama presidency, the country is not there yet. He spoke of restoring basic goals: owning a home, earning enough to raise a family, putting a little money away for retirement.
"We can do this," Obama said. "I know we can."