Bolstered by economy, Obama takes on hostile Congress

US President Barack Obama appears before a Republican-controlled Congress Tuesday to give a State of the Union address that will demand hostile lawmakers increase taxes on the rich.

Emboldened by faster economic growth, higher poll numbers and a second term rejuvenation, Obama will outline ambitious tax plans almost certain to be defeated by his political adversaries.

This will be Obama`s first State of the Union address since Democrats lost control of Congress at last year`s mid-term elections.

If Obama is not in a position to impose his plan, he can at least force Republicans to pay a political price for opposing him.

Tuesday`s address foreshadows the battles to come both in Congress and on the campaign trail, as Republican and Democrat hopefuls limber up for the battle to replace Obama.

The president -- now at the half-way point of his second term -- is enjoying a popularity bounce.

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

That is largely thanks to the improving economy. Unemployment has dropped below six percent, the stock market is back near record levels, growth is at its highest in 11 years and gas prices have plummeted for motorists.

Foes have already accused him of using this bump in popularity to instigate class warfare and seek out controversy by pushing for middle class tax breaks and tax hikes for the rich.

"The 400 richest taxpayers paid an average tax rate below 17 percent in 2012, lower than many middle-class families," the White House noted in a briefing paper on the plan.

Obama`s plan was necessary, his office argued, because the "tax code is unfair, allowing the rich to play by different rules."

Under his reform, extra taxes on capital gains targeting just the wealthiest 0.1 percent of people -- those earning more than $2 million per year -- would generate 80 percent of new revenue.

"By ensuring those at the top pay their fair share in taxes, the president`s plan responsibly pays for investments we need to help middle class families get ahead," the paper said.

This would notably be used to lower college fees for poorer students, but it was ridiculed by Republican budget hawks.

"This is not a serious proposal," scoffed Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Congressman Paul Ryan, a former vice-presidential candidate and lead Republican budget negotiator.

"We lift families up and grow the economy with a simpler, flatter tax code, not big tax increases to pay for more Washington spending," Buck argued, in remarks echoed across his party.In recent months Obama has used his executive authority to the limit -- opponents would argue stretched it to the limit -- to impose or oppose some policies by decree.

The new Congress has made one of its first priorities to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, an idea Obama has said he will veto out of hand if experts say it will damage the environment.

On the foreign policy front, he has announced moves to normalize relations with Cuba and pushed on with talks with Iran on its nuclear program, in defiance of conservative foreign policy foes.

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

Coincidentally -- or not -- 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.

He won`t get everything he wants, and much angry politicking lies ahead in the years before his next and last State of the Union speech.

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