President Obama struck a more aggressive tone in his third State of the Union speech, chastising Congress for its lack of consensus legislation and calling for increased infrastructure reform and the end to economic inequality. As Peter Wallsten reported:

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.

Obama’s tone during his address to Congress was a stark contrast to the more centrist persona he had cultivated in previous months. As Chris Cillizza explained:

At first listen, President Obama’s State of the Union address had all the hallmarks of the sort of bipartisan, let’s-do-the-right-thing-for-America tone that characterized his 2008 presidential campaign.

But, listen closer and a more hard-edged, challenging tone reveals itself— a preview of what the incumbent will likely sound like as he seeks a second term this November.

“We’ve come too far to turn back now,” said Obama at one point. “As long as I’m President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But 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.”

Later, he offered an even more blunt challenge: “With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow.” He also repeatedly urged Congress to “send me a bill”, making clear that the ball, legislatively and politically, was in their court.

Even in his tone — a forceful and energetic delivery — made clear that Obama had a simple message for Republicans: Game on.

The State of the Union speech then was in keeping with the rhetoric coming out of this president and this White House dating back to the payroll tax cut extension fight late last year.

It seems as thought the debt-ceiling fight, which Obama described as a “fiasco”in his address tonight, convinced him once and for all that the only way to effectively deal with Republicans was show them that he was willing to talk tougher and push harder than they were.

It worked in the payroll tax cut fight as Republicans folded after it became clear that their attempt to pass a longer-term extension was doomed. (Obama made special mention of the payroll tax in the State of the Union; “Let’s agree right here, right now: No side issues. No drama. Pass the payroll tax cut without delay,” he said.)

Obama focused on the issue of economic inequality, making reference to a minimum tax burden for millionaires and the disparity between the tax rates paid by Warren Buffett and his secretary. As Scott Wilson and David Nakamura reported:

President Obama warned the nation Tuesday that the decades-old promise of a secure and rising middle class is under threat because of growing disparities between the rich and everyone else in America.

In an election-year State of the Union message that will likely serve as the template for the months of campaigning ahead, Obama outlined a series of steps that he believes will reinforce the tentative economic recovery, including proposals to eliminate tax incentives for companies to move jobs overseas, to make college more affordable and to expand help for credit-worthy homeowners looking to refinance mortgages at historically low interest rates.

None of the proposals constitutes a single bold stroke to revive the economy, but the heart of Obama’s message — one he has underscored in appearances around the country in recent months — was that America’s wealthiest citizens must do more to cement the economic recovery and pull the country from its dire fiscal condition.

The approach was typified by his call for those who make more than $1 million a year to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent and to forgo a host of deductions he said they do not need.

In detailing what he called a “blueprint for an economy built to last,” Obama struck the populist chords that his Republican presidential rivals have criticized as “class warfare.” But he has seen his approval ratings rise on the strength of that message, particularly among the independent voters who helped elect him in 2008 but had grown disappointed by his leadership in office.

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