Obama Speech Depicts Country At A Crossroads

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President Obama gave his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The speech was one part blueprint for economic cooperation, and one part political warning shot — as Obama prepares for a tough re-election campaign.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama wants to see more tax breaks for manufacturers and fewer tax breaks for millionaires. Those were among the ideas floated in the president's third State of the Union speech last night. Throughout the morning, we're getting reaction to that address.

We begin our coverage with NPR's Scott Horsley, who reports the speech was one part blueprint for economic cooperation and one part political warning shot.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For weeks now, Republican presidential hopefuls have been describing the upcoming election as a dramatic choice between two very different futures. Last night it was President Obama's turn in the spotlight. And he too painted a picture of a country at a crossroads.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.


HORSLEY: The vision for a sustainable economy described by the president includes a strong manufacturing sector. Factories tend to pay good wages and boost the surrounding community.

Mr. Obama noted that since his controversial 2009 decision to rescue General Motors and Chrysler, the American auto industry has regain its footing and added nearly 160,000 jobs.


OBAMA: We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.


HORSLEY: Other American manufacturers have also grown more competitive. Mr. Obama wants to encourage this trend by offering new tax breaks for companies that invest in factories here and eliminating tax breaks for companies that shift jobs overseas.

The president's economic platform also calls for enhanced worker training and further development of U.S. energy sources. He called for steps to boost natural gas production. And he vowed to continue to invest in alternative sources of energy, despite some costly setbacks, like the bankrupt Solyndra solar company.


OBAMA: Some technologies don't pan out. Some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.


HORSLEY: With unemployment at eight-and-a-half percent, many Americans remain skeptical of Mr. Obama's economic stewardship. But the president insists the economy is slowly recovering from its deep downturn, with the private sector adding more than three million jobs over the last 22 months.


OBAMA: And we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action. And I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.


HORSLEY: Republican presidential hopefuls have been calling for repeal of the new financial regulations that the president pushed through. Mr. Obama says those regulations help to protect consumers from risky loans. He also announced the formation of a new Justice Department unit to investigate abusive practices that may have contributed to the housing crisis.

One of the biggest obstacles to compromise in Washington has been a deep partisan disagreement over taxes. Last night, Mr. Obama renewed his call for wealthy Americans to pay higher taxes, saying people making a million dollars a year should pay at least 30 percent.

Mitt Romney, whose tax rate is less than half that, has accused Mr. Obama of practicing the bitter politics of envy. Mr. Obama argued that if the wealthy don't pay more, somebody else will have to.


OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also disputed Republican claims that he's weakened America's standing abroad.


OBAMA: Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about.


HORSLEY: The president celebrated the end of the war in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden - giving credit for those successes to the courage and the teamwork of the men and women in uniform.


OBAMA: They don't obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.


HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says he still wants to find areas where he can work together with Congress. But the president also showed he's also increasingly willing to spell out differences and let the American people decide which path they want to follow. It is, after all, an election year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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