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Obama urges more help for the poor


Barack Obama meets letter writers who will be in the White House Oval Office for his State of the Union address (AP)

Barack Obama meets letter writers who will be in the White House Oval Office for his State of the Union address (AP)

Barack Obama meets letter writers who will be in the White House Oval Office for his State of the Union address (AP)

President Barack Obama issued a sweeping challenge to Congress and the American people to do more for the poor and middle class.

He also used his State of the Union address to call for an end to the nasty partisan political fight that has characterised his six years in office.

Mr Obama issued a broadly optimistic report about the country in his nationally televised speech to Congress, newly dominated by opposition Republicans in both chambers for the first time during his presidency.

He spoke of millions of new jobs created, modestly rising wages, a stock market that has soared as the country climbed out of the Great Recession that greeted him when he took office in 2009.

And he called for a "better politics where we appeal to each other's basic decency instead of our basest fears".

The president said it was time for Americans to "turn the page" on years of economic troubles, terrorism and lengthy wars.

He used his sixth State of the Union speech to outline new tax policies that would hit the wealthiest Americans and give breaks to the middle class.

While calling for a new era of courtesy, Mr Obama outlined an agenda that showed he had no plans to curtail his own plans in favour of Republican priorities.

He appealed for "better politics" in Washington and pledged to work with Republicans, even while touting bread-and-butter Democratic economic proposals and vowing to veto Republican efforts to dismantle his signature achievements - in particular his health care reform.

"We can't put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unravelling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we've got a system to fix," he said.

"And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it."

The 2016 presidential election loomed over Mr Obama's next-to-last State of the Union address, a speech that focused on his bid to use tax policy to ease the economic woes of beleaguered low-income Americans and the country's shrinking middle class.

He proposed increased tax rates for wealthy Americans with much of the new revenue earmarked for measures to benefit low- and middle-income earners who have seen wages stagnate for years.

While he made a bold proposal, tax-averse Republicans are unlikely to act on the president's plan.

But Mr Obama used one of his biggest platforms, a speech that was nationally televised to tens of millions of Americans, to highlight the issue of growing economic inequality, a critical marker for the next presidential campaign.

He asked: "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?"

Answering his own question, Mr Obama said: "So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way."

The president came out of his party's bruising November election defeat - in which Democrats lost control of the Senate - with a surprising burst of activity and a bump in approval ratings.

He has already vowed to veto seven legislative measures that are coming out of the new Republican-controlled Congress - measures ranging from approving the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the US Gulf coast to an effort to hobble his health care overhaul to budget actions that would undo his executive actions on immigration reform.

While the economy was expected to dominate the president's address, he also promoted his recent decision to normalise diplomatic relations with Cuba and asked for a new congressional approval and funding for the military campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorise the use of force against ISIL," he said, referring to IS.

While Republicans are unlikely to pass the new tax proposals, Mr Obama is putting them in the unappealing spot of blocking measures that would offer broad economic benefits to the middle class.

He has a strong argument in that the US economy is on course for a robust recovery from the Great Recession but most of the benefits have not found their way to middle America.

Regardless of the reticence of congressional Republicans to put a bigger tax bite on the wealthy, potential Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are already talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities.