Washington: The economic successes US President Barack Obama touted in his speech to Congress Tuesday were not just taunts to Republicans; he was helping Democrats build an early strategy for keeping the White House in 2016.
With the clock winding down on his two-term presidency, Obama proclaimed America`s economy to be back on steady footing after years of post-recession malaise, and he unveiled a plan to help the middle class that he clearly hopes will carry on into another Democratic administration.
The policy dreams Obama pushed in his State of the Union address -- higher taxes on the super-wealthy, free community college for many students, paid sick days -- have little chance of seeing the light of day with Congress now under full Republican control.
But by highlighting the nation`s economic bounce-back, including steady job growth and shrinking deficits, Obama assured that any Democrat seeking to succeed him would be more inclined to run toward his policies than away from them.
Obama "pointed (the) way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up and deliver for the middle class," Hillary Clinton, the prospective Democratic frontrunner, said on Twitter after the speech.
Until that tweet, Clinton, who is expected to announce a presidential run in coming months, had provided few signs of how she would boost the middle class, although last week she warned against the "risky and wrong" Wall Street financial reforms being pushed by Republicans.
The battle over the middle class will be fertile ground in the run-up to 2016.
"It`s not a new issue for us," number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin told AFP, referring to the debate over inequality and Democrats` calls for spreading the benefits of the economic recovery more evenly across society.
"If you`re in elected position today you have to be talking about the squeeze on the middle class, and the inequality of wealth distribution," added Senate Democrat Chris Murphy.
"It`s nothing new, right? This is always something Democrats have talked about."
But Obama`s new tax proposal, one that closes capital gains loopholes to raise hundreds of billions of dollars for middle class taxes cuts, "is helping to change this debate so the majority in Congress are forced to look at everybody, not just the top one or two or five percent," said Senate Democrat Sherrod Brown.
"Republicans argue that when profits are up ... the main function of this government should be to cut taxes for corporations, at the same time do nothing for wage stagnation... and wage growth and working class voters."That is the likely to be the implicit message of the Democrats` next presidential challenger.
But Republicans are fighting back against charges they are the party of the rich, contending they can raise middle class fortunes better than Democrats.
House Republican Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate and one of the top finance gurus in Congress, complained on MSNBC Wednesday that Obama was painting an "alternate universe" on the economy.
Republicans oppose hiking taxes, especially to expand social benefits or other federal spending.
For them, all workers benefit from a humming economy well-oiled by across-the-board tax cuts, including for the higher brackets, and an easing of regulations that they say stifle job growth.
"I`m still one that believes a rising tide lifts all boats," Senate Republican Jeff Flake told AFP. "I`d rather go that direction."
The debate over inequality proved pivotal during the 2012 election, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney clashed heatedly with Obama over which fiscal approach would rescue American middle class families.
This week Romney, mulling another presidential run, argued that "under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer (and) income inequality has gotten worse."
Slamming Obama`s State of the Union address, Romney criticized Obama`s "disappointing" vision. "The best way to lower the tax burden on all American families is straightforward: lower rates and simplify the tax code," he said.
The Democrats` strategy is to force Republicans to vote against popular measures like middle class tax breaks and child care credits.
"I see Obama`s tax plan has already baited Republicans into making the argument that most annoys people about their party," former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau quipped via Twitter on Saturday.