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Obama Lays Out Ambitious Agenda In Address To Nation


President Obama laid out an ambitious agenda in his State of the Union address last night. He seemed undeterred by the big losses his party suffered at the polls in November. The president challenged Republicans, who now control both chambers of Congress, to embrace what he called middle-class economics. And he offered a series of populist proposals that would help working families afford childcare, education and retirement, paid for by raising taxes and fees on big banks and wealthy Americans. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: A smiling Barack Obama entered the house chamber looking like a man who had nothing left to lose. He told Congress - for the first time in his presidency controlled completely by Republicans - that although it was still a hard time for many, it had been a breakthrough year for America. Economic growth is strong. Unemployment is down. College graduations are up. And the war in Afghanistan is over.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The shadow of crisis has past. And the state of the union is strong.

LIASSON: After Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, Mr. Obama moved to meet the Republicans in the middle. But this time, he didn't acknowledge the repudiation he and his party suffered in November. His attitude was election? What election? He barely nodded to Republican concerns about the deficit or the size of government. Instead, he challenged them to work on his priorities, addressing stagnant middle-class incomes and growing inequality.


OBAMA: Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?

LIASSON: With consumer confidence at an 11-year high and his own approval ratings improving, the president was able to take some credit. He poked Republicans who had warned for years that his policies would tank the economy.


OBAMA: At every step, we were told 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.


LIASSON: Since the election, the president has moved aggressively to define the policy agenda with a series of unilateral actions on immigration, climate change and foreign-policy. He warned Republicans not to try to overturn them.


OBAMA: 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 re-fighting past battles on immigration when we got to fix a broken system. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.

LIASSON: He also mocked Republicans on climate change, pointing out that 14 of the last 15 years were the warmest on record.


OBAMA: I've heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists, that we don't have enough information to act. Well, I'm not a scientist either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA and at NOAA and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate.

LIASSON: The centerpiece of the president's speech was a populist agenda he called middle-class economics.


OBAMA: That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement. And my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama would pay for all this by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and imposing fees on the biggest banks. Republicans won't vote for that. But they might vote for new trade bills. On trade, the president's toughest audience was his own party. He told Democrats that he was the first to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype. But he promised them that the ones he is negotiating will be different. And he grounded his argument in nationalism, not globalism.


OBAMA: But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage.

LIASSON: A year ago, the president said that America must move off a permanent war footing. But the world has not cooperated. Last night, he asked Congress for new authority to fight the terrorist group known as the Islamic State and what he said was its bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.


OBAMA: Now, this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed. And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.

LIASSON: Republicans dismissed most of the president's ideas, saying they were dead on arrival. House Speaker John Boehner said the president was offering more taxes, more government and more bureaucracy. But the White House is counting on the fact that most of Mr. Obama's plans have broad public support. And even if they don't get passed by Congress, he can use them to frame the debates of the next two years and set the stage for the 2016 elections. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.