Obama State of the Union address: ‘I still believe that we are one people’

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Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill . | Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON — In a State of the Union speech designed to ignore but not to inflame Republicans, President Barack Obama asserted himself when they cheered after he said, “I have no more campaigns to run.”

Pausing for the impact, Obama, departing from his script ad-libbed, “I know, because I won both of them,” a remark that drew sustained applause from his Democrats.

In a new era of divided government, Obama made his pitch to boost the middle class on Tuesday in his sixth State of the Union speech. This speech was tame compared to last year, when he foreshadowed his use of executive actions.

But that was before the Democratic thumping in the November elections, when the Republicans won control of the Senate.

His advisers acknowledged that the speech will not budge the GOP. One senior administration official even downplayed that political fact of life at a briefing earlier on Tuesday.

The official said there is plenty of evidence that the issues Obama pushes in Washington – such as increasing the minimum wage – have given impetus and inspiration for state and local governments to take action.

Obama delivered his message to a joint session of Congress against a backdrop of an improving economy, Republicans now in charge of the Senate as well as the House, and with only two years left to his term.

Obama was reflective when he talked about perhaps the most important speech he made – the one that put him on the path to the White House at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

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“Just over a decade ago I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America, a black America or a white America — but a United States of America,” Obama said, noting that “pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision.”

But that does not show, Obama argued – as he has before – that the “vision itself is misguided,” adding, “I still believe that we are one people.”

One people with vastly different opinions.

Many of Obama’s proposals in his 2015 agenda have been rolled out in the past days, with the latest a call to revamp federal income taxes, with the wealthy to pay more.

His speech intentionally contained no surprises but was a collection of broad strokes looking at how to make the U.S. an economic power in the 21st century.

Obama’s call for free community college — based on programs in Chicago and Tennessee – had earlier been announced.

Obama’s call for Congress to authorize the use of force against ISIL –  coming after the fact – was already in the works. His threat of a veto if Congress passes a tougher sanctions bill against Iran – a drive led by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – had earlier been delivered.

One idea not highlighted in the speech – but unveiled by the administration on Tuesday – was to make it easier for students and their families to fill out the Federal Student Aid application, which is a giant headache.

Obama wants to cut 27 of what his team called the “most burdensome and difficult-to-verify questions.” And he can’t sign an executive action to do it; the administration official said Congress had to act.

If they can’t get that done, then Obama heads to his final years in office with an even deeper partisan divide – his hopes for change in that Boston speech not quite realized.

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