In State of the Union address, Obama seeks to capitalize on incumbency and a hot issue

The economy continues to struggle and Americans are largely pessimistic, but dueling events Tuesday showed why in politics it’s good to be the incumbent.

In Washington, President Obama harnessed one of the grand symbols of his office — a prime-time State of the Union speech — to present himself to voters as a champion for middle-class families struggling to get by and declare that “we’ve come too far to turn back now.”

In Florida, the escalating battle for the right to challenge Obama threatened to further bloody the leading contenders — with Mitt Romney on the defensive over his tax rate as revealed by the Tuesday release of his 2010 returns and Newt Gingrich trying to fend off questions about his consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

The day brought a reminder that, for all of Obama’s many political challenges and relatively low approval ratings, the White House has some reason for optimism.

In addition to the prospect of a protracted GOP nomination fight, Obama has been boosted as the jobless rate has ticked down in recent months. And a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found independent voters quickly souring on Romney, whose strength with that group not long ago made him the opponent that many Democrats feared most.

The president’s address Tuesday served far more as a roadmap for how Obama as a reelection candidate intends to capi­tal­ize on his built-in advantages than as a governing blueprint for the next year.

He sprinkled his remarks with anecdotes and shout-outs to key cities in election battlegrounds, from Raleigh to Pittsburgh and Milwaukee to Cleveland. He hit back against GOP attacks on an array of foreign and domestic policy areas — declaring victory on the auto bailout and his overhauls of health care and Wall Street regulations.

“America is back,” the president said at one point.

A gift of timing allowed Obama to draw a stark contrast with Romney.

It came, indirectly, as the president highlighted his quest for the “Buffett rule,” named for the billionaire investor who has criticized a tax system that allows him and other investors to pay a lower rate than their staffs. The rule would require people making more than $1 million a year to pay at least the same tax rates as middle-class Americans, which can be close to 30 percent. Buffett has said he paid an effective 17.4 percent rate last year.

Buffett’s secretary was sitting in the gallery, but Americans learned Tuesday that Romney, too, stands as a symbol of what the White House is portraying as a major inequity. In 2010, he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent on $21.7 million in income, most of it from investments.

“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,” Obama said, “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 invoked a common refrain from Romney and other Republicans about his support for raising taxes on the right, saying: “Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.”

Democratic strategists say Obama’s focus on inequality this year will serve him well no matter who wins the GOP nomination.

Even so, the president’s language Tuesday night on housing — a proposal to help responsible homeowners refinance mortgages and a pledge for the Justice Department to step up investigations into abusive lending practices — could foreshadow lines of attack against Gingrich and his Freddie Mac connections.

Adding to the notion that the State of the Union address was, in effect, a campaign speech, Obama departs Wednesday morning on a three-day swing to five competitive states — Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan — where he will no doubt turn up the heat on Republicans.

The timing of the address, coupled with Romney’s tax release, fits neatly into the Democrats’ effort to portray Romney as an out-of-touch corporate raider who seeks to shield Wall Street executives and other high-rollers from paying their share.

And it threatens to further weaken Romney’s argument to GOP primary voters that he would be the strongest general-election opponent for Obama.

That argument, after all, rested largely on polling data showing the former Massachusetts governor outpacing the president among crucial independent voters.

But in the hours before Obama’s speech, new data from the new Post-ABC poll suggested a shifting landscape: Independents were souring on Romney and feeling a bit better about Obama.

Even more telling, as Romney has spent much of the past two weeks defending his record at Bain Capital and battling over whether to release his tax records, he has lost ground among whites with incomes under $50,000 a year — a key target group that has long been skeptical of Obama and viewed as critical in battlegrounds such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The new survey found that Romney’s unfavorable rating in that group has spiked in the past two weeks, from 29 to 49 percent.

Obama has not improved markedly with those voters, underscoring the president’s persistent challenge with that group.

Democrats, though, see Obama’s speech as a pivotal opportunity to make inroads. The timing, following Romney’s stinging loss to Gingrich in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, makes the scene that much sweeter for the White House.

“When you own this economy, that’s a challenge,” conceded Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. “But to get the gift of timing, that Obama can speak to the country while Romney is releasing his tax returns at an effective rate below 15 percent, is an amazing moment.”

Whether Obama’s good fortunes continue depends on many factors out of his control, most notably the economy.

And while Democrats see hope in the power of incumbency, Republicans have been laying plans to undercut that power, amassing a database of Obama’s past statements to use against him in local and national advertising. One ad released Tuesday by the Republican National Committee declared the state of the union to be “not better off,” a reference to an interview in which Obama conceded that many Americans were not doing better than they were four years ago.

“On the one hand, he’s got Air Force One, the Secret Service and a powerful entourage, and all that augers well for him,” said Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman who now heads the American Conservative Union. “But he’s also got three and a half years of baggage, and we think that’s pretty heavy.”

Republican strategists say this week’s events may well give the president a bump. But they point to surveys showing that independent voters remain skeptical of Obama on key issues, such as jobs, budget deficits and health care, and one GOP candidate’s rough patch does not mean much about what will happen in November.

Romney has “had a bad couple of weeks,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayers. “But what we know about independents is that they move around even more quickly than Republicans these days. And just because independents move one way after a bad couple of weeks tells you nothing about where they will end up.”

Polling director Jon Cohen and analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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