J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Obama: Let's Set Sights Higher Than ‘Just Making Sure Government Doesn’t Screw Things Up’

In State of the Union, president advocates an active government to help support a middle-class economy.

In a State of the Union address delivered amid upbeat economic news, President Obama on Tuesday night declared for the first time in his presidency that “the shadow of crisis has passed and the state of the union is strong.”

In a 6,400-word, 60-minute celebratory speech delivered two months after a mid-term election thumping that gave full control of Congress to Republicans, Obama hailed a “breakthrough year for America” that produced “a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production.”

And he called for an active government that raises some taxes and launches new education and workplace benefits to create a middle-class economy.

“Middle-class economics works, he said. “And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix.”

Obama threatened to veto any bill that would undo these accomplishments.

 “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t screw things up,” Obama said, referring to the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the 2010 Dodd-Frank Financial Reform law. “We believed that sensible regulations could prevent another crisis, shield families from ruin, and encourage fair competition. Today, we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts, and a new consumer watchdog to protect us from predatory lending and abusive credit card practices. And in the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage.”

He reminded the national audience that his critics had said “our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits. Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.”

The president defended the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department. “Already, we’ve made strides toward ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care,” he said. “We’re slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need, and we’re making it easier for vets to translate their training and experience into civilian jobs.”

 He also praised American medical professionals’ success in rolling back Ebola in Africa, and announced a new Precision Medicine Initiative that assembles data to help cure cancer and diabetes.

In tax policy, he called for closing loopholes “to stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad and use the savings to invest in job-creating domestic infrastructure.” He plugged legislation for equal pay for women, paid sick leave in the private sector and a hike in the minimum wage. The president last week ordered federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave to employees caring for new babies or ill family members, and he called on Congress to pass legislation granting another six weeks of paid leave, for a total of 12 weeks of paid family leave.

Obama boasted that last month NASA launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars, introducing, from the gallery, astronaut Scott Kelly, who will begin a year-long stay in space.

Pressing for action on climate change, the president praised “a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], and at our major universities,…the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods.”

Obama asked for presidential trade promotion authority, an issue that divides Democrats and unions.

In foreign policy, he called on Congress to “show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.” And he again called for complete closure of the controversial prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo.

 “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” he said. “We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents.  That’s exactly what we’re doing right now – and around the globe, it is making a difference.”

Alluding to a series of recent computer hackings of agencies and private corporations, Obama urged Congress to pass his recently revised legislation to “better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft and protect our children’s information. If we don’t act, we’ll leave our nation and our economy vulnerable.”

In an appeal for political compromise, Obama preached that “better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.”

He ended with a defense of government, for its role “at every moment of economic change throughout our history, [when] this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. …  

That’s what middle-class economics is,” Obama said, “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Republicans, many of whom refrained from applause after lines that pleased Democrats, expressed a starkly contrasting view. “Tonight isn’t about the president’s legacy, it’s about the people’s priorities,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a video statement before the address. “Making government bigger isn’t going to help the middle class.”

The official GOP response was delivered by freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who promised the public that the Republican Congress would “make Washington focus on your concerns again,” according to prepared remarks.

Republicans will “keep fighting to repeal and replace a health care law that’s hurt so many hardworking families,” she said.  “We’ll work to correct executive overreach. We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget — with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the president has proposed.”