State of the Union: Is Obama's vision 'common sense' or class warfare?

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama argued that America needs a strong government, and that requires more taxes on the rich. Polls show voters could be receptive.

Saul Loeb/AP
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama laid down a bold marker in his State of the Union address: He will defend a strong role for government, even in an era of high concern about federal deficits and the risk of rising taxes.

Where Republicans often cast government as the problem, he played up government as an ongoing contributor to US progress.

"No one built this country on their own," Mr. Obama said, with the clear implication that the needed teamwork should include administration priorities like federal promotion of job training, clean energy, and a federally orchestrated effort to refinance more mortgages.

He mentioned the problem of federal deficits, but didn't emphasize the issue as a major threat to the economy's health.

He proposed a sizable tax hike for millionaires, while giving barely a nod to a top Republican priority: spending cuts. In fact, at the heart of his tax proposal was unapologetic defense of government programs.

"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," Obama said.

The important political question is: Will the president's argument be a winning one with US voters, who will decide in November whether he gets another term in office?

Obama knows that controversial proposals like that tax increase on millionaires won't be approved by Congress before the vote. But he's staking his election hopes on sharpening this contrast with the eventual Republican nominee for president, whoever that may be.

The president is setting himself up as a defender of the middle class – and government programs that support the middle class – against a Republican Party that would emphasize shrinking government and lowering taxes further, including on the rich.

What the polls suggest

Some recent opinion polls suggest that Obama can score some gains with this strategy. But with his currently low levels of voter approval, his success is far from assured.

The polls show many Americans view the tax code as not "fair," a word Obama used repeatedly in his address, and that they are concerned about possible cuts to core federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.

In a CBS News/New York Times survey this month, 52 percent of Americans said their current taxes are "about right." But 40 percent said they are paying more than their "fair share." And 55 percent said upper-income Americans should be paying more.

In the same poll, 52 percent said they'd prefer to see capital gains taxed at the same rate as wages. Thirty-six percent would retain the current capital-gains policy, which allows many wealthy Americans, such as billionaire Warren Buffett and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to pay a relatively low 15 percent tax rate on much of their income, because that income is from investments.

In a broader gauge of Americans' policy preferences, an ABC News/Washington Post poll last fall asked: "When it comes to finding the right balance between cutting government spending that is not needed and continuing government spending that is needed, who do you trust to do a better job: Obama or the Republicans in Congress?" Respondents edged toward Obama (44 percent), rather than the GOP (39 percent).

Although Obama's defense of government's role in the domestic economy is a traditional one for Democrats, he also sought to show himself open to finding middle ground with Republicans. Obama made a pitch for streamlining government agencies (seeking special authority to do so from Congress) and called for an "all of the above" energy strategy that would include thousands of new jobs in oil and gas, for example.

But in his overall emphasis, Obama was using the speech to set battle lines.

His strategy regarding tax policy and the "fairness" theme carries risks as well as potential rewards.

Republicans accuse the president of "class warfare" and seeking an economically damaging tax hike on small-business people and other job creators. Those lines will resonate with many voters.

A January Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll asked Americans whether they agree or disagree that "it is the government's role to redistribute wealth and income." Some 61 percent disagreed, and only 22 percent agreed.

Obama sought to insulate himself against this criticism by addressing it directly Tuesday night.

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

Challenges ahead

Between now and November, both parties will face a skeptical public. The challenge for each side will be to lay out a positive vision while leveraging deep discontent.

A 69 percent majority of Americans is "dissatisfied" with the size and power of the federal government, according to a Gallup poll this month. But a similar share of Americans (63 percent) is dissatisfied with major corporations, Gallup found.

Among independent voters, who could be pivotal in the election, the levels of dissatisfaction on both fronts were even higher.

Obama's positive vision is that he says he's focused on "the defining issue of our time": how to revive the promise that families can see their hard work result in rising prosperity. And in an attempt to leverage voter discontent, he argued that he'll be America's line of defense against "any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

The rebuttal speech by Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) of Indiana offered the Republicans' counterpoint.

“The president’s grand experiment in trickle-down government has held back rather than sped economic recovery," Governor Daniels charged. "A government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it."

Get ready to hear more along these lines from both sides in the months ahead.

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