Associated Press
On the day of his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Last evening we had a reprieve from Republican presidential candidate debates — but not from presidential election year politics. President Barack Obama used the pageantry of the annual State of the Union address to remind Americans that he is very much in the race for the office he now holds and to draw clear distinctions between his policies and those of his rivals.

In speaking to a Congress defined by its historically low approval ratings, Obama laid out a bold policy agenda clearly intended to put Republican lawmakers and candidates on the defensive.

"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," said the president.

Obama argued that keeping the American dream of middle class prosperity alive depends upon government policies intended to stop outsourcing and promote domestic job creation.

But instead of laying out a few comprehensive policies, the president set forth dozens of proposals such as corporate tax reforms that would inhibit outsourcing, focused efforts to crack down on unfair trade practices and targeted jobs training for high-skilled jobs. Noting the importance of education, he argued for merit pay for teachers, flexibility for local schools and innovations to reduce college costs.

He asked for an energy policy that combined increased off-shore drilling and the development of natural gas with tax incentives for clean energy and a program to have the Defense Department purchase clean energy produced on federal public lands. He called for increased investments in public infrastructure and the creation of a veterans' jobs corps.

He forcefully defended the financial consumer protections created by Dodd-Frank and auspiciously renewed his call for what he calls tax fairness, asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a third of their income in taxes, regardless of how they may currently and legally shelter it.

He also reminded Americans of major foreign policy milestones such as winding down the war in Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the economic isolation of Iran. In a none-too-subtle attack on a common theme from potential Republican rival Mitt Romney, Obama said, "anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about."

Amazingly, the president avoided serious discussion of the ballooning federal deficit. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Republican chosen to provide the rejoinder to Obama, focused on this glaring omission, reminding Americans that one out of every four dollars in our economy comes from federal spending and that the federal government borrows one of every three dollars it spends.

It was not very many months ago that Daniels was touted as a strong inside favorite for the Republican presidential nomination before he withdrew from contention. His civil Midwestern tone coupled with a clear articulation of the salient differences between Republicans and Democrats made his one of the most effective responses from the loyal opposition in recent memory.

"The extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy," said Daniels, "or cancels a perfectly sane pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy."

Today the president takes his lengthy policy agenda on a three-day trip through five swing states. We've witnessed months of what the battle lines look like between Republicans vying for the presidency. Today we have a much clearer sense of where the battle lines lie between the Republicans and Democrats going into the 2012 election.