State of the Union: President Obama turns populist

President Obama is increasingly adopting the rhetoric and goals of liberal Democrats and the Occupy Wall Street movement, using his State of the Union address Tuesday to call for higher taxes on the rich and greater economic fairness.

The president did not invoke the phrases “1 percent” or “99 percent,”as the protesters do. But Obama, who a year ago was trying to repair ties with the business community and Republicans, has turned decidedly populist, at times pitting big corporations, banks and the wealthy against the middle class in the speech.

He is now casting congressional Republicans as holding back economic progress and rolled out several ideas on Tuesday to increase taxes on wealthy Americans and companies that outsource jobs overseas. One of the most notable proposals is the so-called Buffett rule, named after the Nebraska financier, which would require all Americans who make more than $1 million in a year to pay at least 30 percent in taxes.

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“I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same polices that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” he said Tuesday.

He added, “It’s time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.”

Obama’s tone was sharp and blunt at times in the speech. Urging Congress to pass some of his economic ideas, the president said, “put them in a bill and get it on my desk.”

Even if Congress does not pass his agenda, the ideas from the speech are likely to used on the campaign trail in the fall, particularly if former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the GOP
nominee. Democrats want to paint Romney, a multi-millionaire who once founded a venture capital firm, as symbol of corporate excess and the divide between the wealthy and the middle class.

This speech was in some ways the launch of President Obama’s reelection campaign. Even as unemployment remains high, the president used the address to list what he views as the successes of his first three years in office, from the economic stimulus to the health care reform to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

But the address illustrated the change in Obama from 2008. His election campaign will be much less “hope” and “change” and a greater shift to confrontation with Republicans and fiery rhetoric to appeal to voters still worried about the economy.

“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,” he said. “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

In another display of populism, he said, “Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else – like education and medical research; a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.”

The speech, while not naming Romney or the other Republican presidential candidates, at times seemed a direct rebuttal to them. Obama specifically said Americans did not “envy” the rich, as Romney recently suggested.

“Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense,” he said.

He added, “We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference.”

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr