By MARK LANDLER
When Mr. Obama talked about levying a millionaires’ tax, he might have been referring to Mr. Romney’s newly released tax return, which disclosed he paid a tax rate of 13.9 percent on income of more than $20 million in 2010.
When he referred to his administration’s bailout of the auto industry, noting that “some even said we should let it die,” he could have been talking about Mr. Romney’s argument that the carmakers should have been allowed to fail. And when he said he would oppose “any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” he could have been referring to Mr. Romney’s call for a rollback of regulations on Wall Street.
Nine months before he faces the voters, Mr. Obama seized what is likely to be one of his most prominent platforms of the year to draw a bright line between himself and Mr. Romney — and, in the process, try to appeal to those frustrated by the deepening economic divide.
Gone was the soaring language of his last State of the
Union address, when the president spoke of winning the future — a challenge he likened to “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” With the tents of the Occupy protesters catching snow in American cities, he was tapping into a national sense of grievance.
“When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich,” Mr. Obama said, answering Mr. Romney’s charge that the president engages in the “bitter politics of envy.” “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.”
It is a theme he has struck repeatedly as his campaign has geared up, and nowhere more forcefully than last month in Osawatomie, Kan., where he invoked the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican aristocrat who nevertheless broke up monopolies and campaigned for a progressive income tax.
Mr. Obama’s appeal on Tuesday, studded as it was with the policy proposals that fill these addresses, did not match that populist fury. But in the august setting of the Capitol, squaring off against an often-hostile Congress, the president rolled out an election-year message that offers voters a stark choice between his vision and what he paints as the Darwinian approach of Mr. Romney and other Republicans.
To some extent, Mr. Obama was also aiming his words at
, where Mr. Romney and the rest of the Republican field are competing in a primary next week over the right to challenge the president. Florida
Every word in a State of the Union address is carefully chosen. So it was no accident that when the president discussed the auto industry and the future of American manufacturing, he said: “What’s happening in
can happen in other industries. It can happen in Detroit Cleveland and Pittsburgh and .” Raleigh
Those cities happen to be in
Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and — battleground states totaling 69 electoral votes. North Carolina
But much of the president’s message was clearly intended to push back at his Republican rivals and their critiques of his record.
Lest anyone forget Mr. Romney’s background at Bain Capital as an avid buyer and seller of companies, Mr. Obama offered a paean to permanence — to companies built on a sturdy foundation of manufacturing and skilled workers. These businesses, he said, are the basis of a competitive economy.
Mr. Obama also seemed to have Mr. Romney in mind when he announced new housing assistance and declared that “responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.” Last year, Mr. Romney went to
Nevada, the state hardest hit by foreclosures, and told a newspaper that the housing market needed to bottom out. Las Vegas
Mr. Obama also said he would oppose efforts to repeal financial regulations, and he drew a direct link between the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and the economic mess that has consumed his own presidency.
In recent weeks, Mr. Obama has had a useful surrogate in Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who has accused Mr. Romney of destroying jobs while at Bain and pressured him to release his tax returns.
But Mr. Gingrich, whose victory in the
primary has turned him into a real competitor, did not escape a few jabs Tuesday night. Mr. Obama called for new rules to reduce the influence of lobbyists. Left unsaid was Mr. Gingrich’s disclosure on Monday that he had been paid $1.6 million to advise the mortgage giant Freddie Mac. South Carolina
Mr. Romney was not silent on Mr. Obama’s big day, earlier laying out his own case for leadership in a speech at a shuttered factory in
He argued that his 25 years in business had given him the skills to turn around the economy. The president, Mr. Romney said, “puts his faith in government; we put our faith in the American people.” Tampa, Fla.
“Ours is the party of free enterprise, free markets and consumer choice,” he said. “The Republican Party stands for personal responsibility and equal opportunity. We don’t demonize prosperity; we celebrate success.”
Mr. Obama countered that he had turned things around, pointing to the revived auto industry, a recovering economy and three million private-sector jobs. And he flatly rejected the contention of Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and other Republicans that he is presiding over a country in decline.
“Anyone who tells you otherwise,” the president said, “anyone who tells you that
is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” America
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.