State of the Union: Obama calls for end to inequality


Obama renewed call for the Buffett Rule on taxation

US President Barack Obama has attacked income inequality, using his third State of the Union speech to set the tone for his re-election bid.

Mr Obama emphasised the importance of an economy that works for everyone, in the nationally televised address to Congress.

The speech saw a renewed call for higher taxes on the wealthy, something Republicans strongly oppose.

The US economy is on the mend, but unemployment remains high at 8.5%.

The annual State of the Union address - one of the most keenly watched events in US politics - traditionally includes policy prescriptions from the White House for the upcoming year.

Mr Obama will now take the themes of Tuesday night's speech on the road, spending three days visiting manufacturing companies and higher education institutions in five states - all seen as important in November's election.

'Reclaim American values'

President Obama's speech on Tuesday in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives was delivered with an eye on November's presidential election, when he will seek another four years in office.

Start Quote

At the heart of this speech is a president, defiant. Defending the role of government and what he wants it to do”

End Quote

He said: "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, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."

Mr Obama said the economy was bouncing back from the 2007-09 recession.

He sounded a warning to his conservative opponents, as he added: "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."

US media reaction

For the New York Times, Mr Obama went in the right direction in challenging the Republican notion that excessive government spending was to blame for the country's economic plight. "He sounded many of the same themes as last year, but his tone was sharper and he was far more willing to apportion blame," it says approvingly.

There was a very different view in the Wall St Journal, which accuses him of trying to campaign as an incumbent whose every move has been stymied by Congress. "For two years he had the largest Democratic majorities in Congress since the 1970s and achieved nearly everything he wanted." But those achievements have resulted in such weak, unpopular results, the paper argues, that he is forced to resort to the "politics of envy".

For Time, Mr Obama's "startlingly blunt" insistence that America was not in decline was not, according to polls, shared by the vast majority of the American people. And this optimism characterised the whole of the speech. "He came out swinging, with positive data, happy anecdotes and an energy that he rarely displays these days when he's off the campaign trail."

Fox News' depiction of this optimism was laced with a little more scorn. "Don't worry, America," writes Rich Lowry. "There's nothing that ails this country that can't be made right by a catalogue of piddling proposals that will be forgotten tomorrow - and oh yeah, more taxes on the rich. Such was the message of President Obama's State of the Union address."

Mr Obama also made a renewed call for his Buffett Rule - a principle that millionaires should not pay a lower tax rate than typical workers.

The idea is named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who famously complained that his secretary pays a higher rate of tax than he does.

Mr Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, watched the speech alongside First Lady Michelle Obama from the gallery.

Pledging no tax increases for those earning under $250,000 (£160,000), Mr Obama said: "If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30% in taxes."

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

Republicans have repeatedly rejected Mr Obama's call for higher taxes on the wealthy and accuse him of resorting to class warfare to get elected again.

Mr Obama also proposed:

  • tax reforms to make it less attractive for US companies to transfer jobs overseas
  • allowing homeowners with privately held mortgages to refinance at lower interest rates
  • a new trade enforcement unit dedicated to deterring unfair practices by rival economies, such as China

A wave of unity swept over the chamber as Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a lone gunman in Arizona shortly before the last state of the union, attended during her last week serving as a congresswoman.

What is the State of the Union?

  • The US Constitution (Article II, Section 3) requires the president to "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union"
  • Making a speech to Congress is not required by the constitution
  • The tradition of making a speech only took hold in the early 20th Century
  • President Calvin Coolidge (1923) made the radio address, and Harry Truman (1947) the first televised one
  • In 2002 President George W Bush made the first address to be streamed online

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Ms Giffords, who announced on Sunday that she would resign to focus on her recovery, was embraced by Mr Obama, amid rousing cheers.


Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, delivering the Republican Party's response to Mr Obama's speech, called it "pro-poverty".

He said: "No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favour with some Americans by castigating others."

The address put the political spotlight firmly back on the Democratic president, after months of focus on the Republican candidates vying to challenge him for the White House.

Earlier, one of those contenders, Mitt Romney, was forced by political pressure to release his tax returns.

Mitch Daniels gives Republican reaction

The forms revealed the private equity tycoon earned nearly $22m in 2010 and paid an effective tax rate of about 14%, a lower rate than most other Americans pay.

On Tuesday morning, the former Massachusetts governor held his own "prebuttal" on the campaign trail in Tampa, Florida, saying that the "real state of our union" was high unemployment and record home foreclosures.

Mr Obama will promote the ideas outlined in his speech over the coming days in five states key to his re-election bid: Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan.

Opinion polls show his approval numbers languishing beneath 50%, with most Americans disapproving of how he has handled the economy.

More than 13 million people are out of work and government debt stands at a record high of $15.2 trillion, up from $10.6 trillion when he took office.

However, surveys also show that Congress is far less popular than Mr Obama, with many blaming Republicans more for the gridlock in Washington.

Partisan warfare on Capitol Hill almost shut down the federal government three times last year.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Before now in Nigeria, we made reference to the American(Western) kind of politicians. If good ideas can be truncated because it comes from opponent, we've to look elsewhere for models.

  • Comment number 53.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I didn't realize all we had to do was to tell the governmental agencies to get rid of their stupid policies, that should have been done years ago! But now that we have the milk spill thing sorted we can get back to creating jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Let's be blunt. Obama was elected only because liberal America thought it was time to have a president of African descent.
    He is useless and he lies. He appealed to nations not to devalue their currency to help with exports then did exactly that to the dollar!!
    He's had his time, next please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The American middle class are in danger of extinction.
    Unless this country becomes more egalitarian by choice it will eventually do so by other means and it will be ugly.
    China is threatening to become the most powerful nation on earth both economically and militarily. America needs to embrace change if this challenge is to be met. Failure to do so will result in its demise as a world power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    spot the republican all about i me my and let the country rot as long as i get what i want. And so what if my children are left a country that is both morally and fiscally bankrupt i dont care i got what i wanted tough on them. The stance of the republican and its morally repugnant, seams plenty of Americans are more than happy to go down that route just dont complain when china forecloses on you

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    "unfair practices by rival economies, such as China"

    Nooo! China seems like such a fair country, could Obama be mistaken?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I think Obama genuinely does try, but ultimately it doesn't really matter much what he says or does. No substantial Democratic initiative is going to pass Congress, and no substantial Republican initiative is going to make it through the Senate and the White House. Sadly, our "leaders" in the US have completely forgotten what compromise means and that it's the most important part of a democracy.

  • Comment number 46.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Disappointment? He is an outright fraud.

    A place man well and truly bought up front and the US electorate went for him hook line and sinker. They will elect him again for two reasons (a) He has been chosen as the republican opposition for the electorate (b) the republicans will destroy one another before the presidential elections even begin.

    Like most "democratic" politics its a total sham.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    "43. Whitefall
    This man is a dangerous radical for far-left policies"

    You must inhabit a world where 90% (if not 99%) of the population are "left wing" if you regard Obama as anything like "far-left". In most of Europe (including those with right wing governments) Obama would be regarded as pretty centrist. However, Obama has demonstrably failed to execute anyway, for better or worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Karl Marx, Stalin and Mao would all be cheering after Obama's Castro-like speech.

    This man is a dangerous radical for far-left policies, just as it was with those historical figures. It's all egalitarianism, utopianism, marxism, collectivism, communism and other ideas that belong in the trash bin of history.

    Nothing about this man is true to America's founding principles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Economic fairness eh?

    I wonder how long it will take for Ed Milliband to claim he thought of it first? Like it has never dawned on the rest of us that it would be better if things were better, preferably a lot better and better still much, much better.

    I don't know how these Politician's think so far outside the box. I really don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Nice speech. Beats Cameron's "big society".

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Guantanamo Bay still open, military action in Libya, US war ships heading to the gulf to bully Iran/Syria, the same money men in power...
    Is Obama really any different or just a smoke screen for the same old same old?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Obama urges economic fairness in State of the Union.
    Of course - there's an 'election' looming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The problem with America is that they should learn from history, but like ALL western economies, politicions will be out for themselves instead of the people they were elected to represent; thus if re-elected Obama will spend the next 4yrs trying to raise taxes on people who earn a lot, but he should remember, politicions run the people, but buisneses run the country. Obama is out for himself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Obama seems to be sincerely trying to fix all the malaise in the US economy that he inherited. However, even though I am an admirer, I feel that what he has done till now has not really made a dent in any way. The economy is still in a shambles, the promises that were made prior to the elections are not being delivered. The performance of his govt so far has been so-so ... may be expected a lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Ron Paul 2012! end the wars, throw out the corporate special interest, and balance the budget! no more NWO or world police!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    30. HLG

    Not another one deliberately misunderstanding what equality refers to. Read my comment 26!
    Equality of opportunity is all Obama is asking for, giving everyone an equal chance to succeed or fail. Is that not fair? No doubt you will cite welfare as manipulating outcomes. No it is not. Welfare is a safety net intended to equalise opportunity, particularly where children are involved.


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