Obama spoke for 65 minutes Tuesday before a joint session of Congress, outlining his legislative requests for education, energy and government efficiency, and calling for changes in the tax code to eliminate loopholes that benefit a few and making the argument that the wealthy should be taxed more so they can "share in the responsibility."
The president's remarks harkened back to themes he laid out in December in Osawatomie, Kan., where called the struggling middle class the "defining issue of our time."
"No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important," 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."
He pledged to work with Congress to build momentum, but also warned:
"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."
Obama offered plans he said would help responsible homeowners refinance their mortgages at lower interest rates and cut through red tape, and called on Congress to extend tuition tax credits for college students, pass a bill that would allow him to consolidate federal agencies, and pass legislation that would give teeth to financial fraud laws.
Should Congress fail to act, Obama pledged he would step in, saying he either has signed or would sign executive orders that would, among other things, eliminate red tape for construction projects. He directed his administration to allow development of clean energy "on enough public land to power 3 million homes."
The most pressing business for Congress is ensuring the payroll tax cut is extended until the end of the year, Obama said.
"People cannot afford losing $40 out of each paycheck this year. There are plenty of ways to get this done," Obama said. "So let's agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay."
He renewed his call for the so-called Buffett rule, named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, which would increase taxes on the wealthy.
"Now you can call this class warfare all you want," Obama said. "But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
"We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it" he said. "When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it's not because they envy the rich. It's because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don't need and the country can't afford, it either adds to the deficit or somebody else has to make up the difference. ... That's not right. Americans know it's not right."
He urged lawmakers to "lower the temperature" in Washington.
"We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction [and] that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas," he said.
Everyone in Washington should want a smarter, more effective government, he said.
"And while we may not be able to bridge our biggest philosophical differences this year, we can make real progress," Obama said. "With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow. But I can do a whole lot more with your help."
America has regained its stature as a world leader, Obama said, leading the way to unified action against Iran for its nuclear program, among other things.
"Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about," Obama said.
He warned financial institutions, lenders and credit card companies to shape up because consumers have a watchdog with one job -- to look out for them.
To big banks or financial institutions, Obama said: "[You] are no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers' deposits You're required to write out a 'living will' that details exactly how you'll pay the bills if you fail -- because the rest of us aren't bailing you out ever again."
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. -- who was wounded in the head a year ago during a shooting spree at a meet-and-greet outside a Tucson grocery store that left six people dead and 13 injured -- received warm applause and a lengthy standing ovation when she entered the House chamber. After announcing she was resigning, effective Wednesday, to focus on her rehabilitation, Giffords returned to Washington to attend her last State of the Union address.
As he entered to give his address, Obama stopped in front of Giffords and gave her a hug. Her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, was a guest at the address of first lady Michelle Obama.
The president said one of his proudest possessions is the flag the SEAL team carried on the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
"On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats; some may be Republicans. But that doesn't matter," Obama said. "All that mattered … was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves."
When he looks at the flag, Obama said, he is reminded that the country's destiny "is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes."
"No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together," he said. "This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each others' backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard."