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Obama Draws Battle Lines In State Of The Union Address

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said he still believed in a United America — one that wasn't divided into red and blue camps. But the reaction to his speech, from both camps, was anything but united.

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Last night in his state of the union address, President Obama said he still believed in a United America, one that wasn't divided into red and blue camps. But the reaction to his speech from both camps has been anything but united. Democrats were thrilled that the president laid out a middle-class economic agenda, and Republicans dismissed almost every part of it saying the president made no effort to reach out to the new majority in Congress. Just ahead we'll hear from a Republican in Congress, but first, we have NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So people have described this speech as ambitious, even aggressive, especially for someone who just suffered a setback at the polls - right? - with the GOP taking control of Congress.

LIASSON: Well, the president has made a decision. He's decided he's not going to act like someone who just took a thumping, in George W. Bush's words. He actually tried that approach back in 2010 when he lost the House. He acknowledged the rejection. He reached out to Republicans on their own terms, and he spent months and months fruitlessly trying to negotiate a deficit and entitlement deal with the Republican leadership, and it didn't work. Now he's decided he's going to use his last years to layout a populist agenda focused on economic growth that's widely shared and try to frame the debate for the next two years, setting the table for the 2016 elections and not worrying so much about how to satisfy Republicans.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the president delivered an awful lot of veto threats - right? - for someone who says he still believes in creating better politics. Can he have it both ways?

LIASSON: Well, he thinks so. Better politics means, in his words, debate without demonization. And we now have a different kind of dynamic in Washington. We have a unified Congress, not the paralyzed, divided Congress that we had for the last four years. So you can make the argument that the president is a much more important player now than when everything was bottled up in the Democratic Senate. Now the Republican Congress is going to pass things. They're going to send them to him, and he's going to have to respond. He can sign them. He can veto them. There will be negotiations with Republicans. And he started drawing the battle lines for those big fights last night. Today the Republican Congress returned the favor. The Republican leadership announced that they'd invited Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without telling the White House first, although House Speaker John Boehner denies that was a poke in the eye to the president.

CORNISH: Now, the president devoted the largest part of his speech to middle class economics. Remind us of the details of the proposals.

LIASSON: Well, he wants to address this big economic problem which is that even when the economy is growing, all the benefits seem to go to the top 1 percent. Middle-class incomes are stagnant. Inequality is growing. So what he's saying is let's invest in infrastructure, make community college virtually free and use the tax code. Raise the capital gains tax, close some loopholes for inherited wealth in order to pay for tax subsidies for middle-class families who are paying for education or child care or retirement. These are all popular proposals. He also wants to expand sick pay, raise the minimum wage and he's daring Republicans to oppose these policies. He said last night if you think you can work full time and support a family on less than 15,000 dollars a year, go try it.

CORNISH: So where does this leave the Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, they're still in charge of the legislative agenda. But what I hear from Republicans are complaints that the Republican leadership has wasted the last two months. They haven't come forward with policies that they can rally around - their own tax plan, their own alternative to Obamacare. And they've let the president hijack their honeymoon. So the ball is in their court. We know they want to stop immigration actions and dismantle Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, but we don't know yet exactly what they want to do.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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