Barack Obama said America is turning the page on years of war and economic hardship Tuesday, in a populist-tinged State of the Union address that will set the terms for the battle to succeed him.

Emboldened by a stronger economy and better approval ratings, Obama unveiled his vision for a new chapter in US history, one that ushers in a fairer economy with a better shake for the middle class.

“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” he said, challenging the Republican-controlled Congress and claiming credit for ending the “Great Recession.”

“We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” he will say, according to excerpts.

“It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”

Obama heralded the “growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production” that have also helped revive his political fortunes as his presidency entered the closing straight.

US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015

“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.”

Teeing up coming legislative and election battles as the 2016 election to replace Obama comes into view, he dared Republicans to oppose proposed tax hikes for the rich.

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Under Obama’s reforms, the wealthiest 0.1 percent of people — those earning more than $2 million per year — would face higher taxes.

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he asked.

Obama’s Republican opponents have branded such talk as little more than class warfare and will use their majority in both houses of Congress to make sure the plans never become law.

“The American people aren’t demanding talking-point proposals designed to excite the base but not designed to pass,” top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who has been tasked by her party with rebutting Obama’s speech, is to say that Americans are still suffering from “stagnant wages and lost jobs.”

She will also decry Obama’s “failed policies” and “a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”

– Executive authority –

This was Obama’s first State of the Union since Democrats lost control of the Senate in November mid-term elections.

But he has rebounded since the vote as unemployment dropped below six percent, the stock market returned to near record levels, growth picked up to its highest clip in 11 years and gas prices plummeted.

US astronaut Scott Kelly (C) is applauded during US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Capitol Hill January 20, 2014 in Washington, DC

A recent ABC/Washington Post poll saw Obama’s approval rating increase nine points to 50 percent, while 44 percent thought he was doing a bad job, a 10-point drop in disapproval.

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In recent months, Obama has used his executive authority — opponents would argue stretched it to the limit — to circumvent Republican opposition, imposing and opposing some policies by decree.

Many of his efforts have focused on improving relations with America’s most implacable foes.

On Tuesday he redoubled calls to end the half-century-old embargo on Cuba and vowed to veto any move to put further sanctions on Iran.

US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 20, 2015 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC

“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere,” he said.

Polls suggest Americans support the Cuban outreach and Obama hammered home his advantage by inviting newly freed US citizen Alan Gross, a former prisoner in Cuba, to the speech.

Republicans countered by inviting Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, to underscore Cuba’s poor human rights record.

The State of the Union falls the day before US envoys begin new talks in Havana on restoring ties, and Obama will push Congress to end the trade embargo.

On Iran, Obama warned that any move to impose new sanctions could scupper delicate negotiations aimed at reaching a complex nuclear deal.

“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails ,” he said.

US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2015

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“That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”

Obama also used the speech to call on Congress to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State jihadist group.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance.”

“This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed.”

Just days after jihadist attacks in Paris killed 17 people, Obama said “deplorable anti-Semitism… has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.”

He added: “We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists —  from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.”

US lawmakers are set to pay tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks by holding up pencils during the speech.
AFP

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