“The Buffet Rule Is A Joke”
By: BEN FELLER
WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring the American dream under siege,
President Barack Obama delivered a populist challenge Tuesday night to shrink
the gap between rich and poor, promising to tax the wealthy more and help
jobless Americans get work and hang onto their homes. Seeking re-election and
needing results, the president invited Republicans to join him but warned,
“I intend to fight.”
In an emphatic State of the Union address, Obama said
ensuring a fair shot for all Americans is “the defining issue of our time.”
He said the economy is finally recovering from a deep and painful recession and
he will fight any effort to return to policies that brought it low.
“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” he
Obama outlined a vastly different vision for fixing the
country than the one pressed by the Republicans confronting him in Congress and
fighting to take his job in the November election. He pleaded for an active
government that ensures economic fairness for everyone, just as his opponents
demand that the government back off and let the free market rule.
Obama offered steps to help students afford college, a plan
for more struggling homeowners to refinance their homes and tax cuts for
manufacturers. He threw in politically appealing references to accountability,
including warning universities they will lose federal aid if they don’t stop
tuition from soaring.
Standing in front of a divided Congress, with bleak hope
this election year for much of his legislative agenda, Obama spoke with voters
“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
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 cheers of “Gabby,
Gabby, Gabby.” She blew a kiss to the podium. Obama embraced her.
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 address 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
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.” He said Americans are convinced that “Washington is
broken,” but he also said it wasn’t too late to cooperate on important
Republicans were not impressed. They applauded infrequently,
though they did cheer when the president quoted “Republican Abraham
Lincoln” as saying: “That government should do for people only what
they cannot do better by themselves — and no more.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, offering the formal GOP
response, called Obama’s policies “pro-poverty” and his tactics
“No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder
than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by
castigating others,” Daniels said after the president’s address.
In a signature swipe at the nation’s growing income gap,
Obama called for a new minimum tax rate of at least 30 percent on anyone making
over $1 million. Many millionaires — including one of his chief rivals,
Republican Mitt Romney — pay a rate less than that because they get most of
their income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate.
“Now you can call this class warfare all you
want,” Obama said, responding to a frequent criticism from the GOP
presidential field. “But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as
his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”
Obama calls this the “Buffett rule,” named for
billionaire Warren Buffett, who has said it’s unfair that his secretary pays a
higher tax rate than he does. Emphasizing the point, Buffett’s secretary,
Debbie Bosanek, attended the address in first lady Michelle Obama’s box.
Obama underlined every proposal with the idea that hard work
and responsibility still count. He was targeting independent voters who helped
seal his election in 2008 and the frustrated masses in a nation pessimistic
about its course.
In a flag-waving defense of American power and influence
abroad, Obama said the U.S. will safeguard its own security “against those
who threaten our citizens, our friends and our interests.” On Iran, he
said that while all options are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring a
nuclear weapon — an implied threat to use military force — “a peaceful
resolution of this issue is still possible.”
With Congress almost universally held in low regard, Obama
went after an easy target in calling for reforms to keep legislators from
engaging in insider trading and holding them to the same conflict-of-interest
standards as those that apply to the executive branch.
With the foreclosure crisis on ongoing sore spot despite a
number of administration housing initiatives over the past three years, Obama
proposed a new program to allow homeowners with privately held mortgages to
refinance at lower interest rates. Administration officials offered few details
but estimated savings at $3,000 a year for average borrowers.
Obama proposed steps to crack down on fraud in the financial
sector and mortgage industry, with a Financial Crimes Unit to monitor bankers
and financial service professionals, and a separate special unit of federal
prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand investigations into abusive
lending that led to the housing crisis.
At a time of tight federal budgets and heavy national debt,
Obama found a ready source of money to finance his ideas: He proposed to devote
half of the money no longer being spent on the U.S. military in Iraq and
Afghanistan to “do some nation-building right here at home,” to help
create more jobs and increase competitiveness. The other half, he said, would
go to help pay down the national debt.
Obama also offered a defense of regulations that protect the
American consumer — regulations often criticized by Republicans as job-killing
“Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the
rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the
same,” Obama said. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to
bottom: No bailouts, no handouts and no cop-outs. An America built to last
insists on responsibility from everybody.”
Obama will follow up Tuesday night’s address with a
three-day tour of 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.
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
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.