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Obama heralds economic recovery in State of the Union address

A confident, often feisty President Barack Obama claimed credit for the improving economy in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

A confident, often feisty President Barack Obama claimed credit for the improving economy in his State of the Union address Tuesday, chiding Republicans -- who won sweeping victories in the 2014 midterm elections -- to follow his lead in enacting policies to help the middle class. While pledging pragmatic steps that lawmakers of both parties could embrace, he vowed to push for an agenda to empower Main Street so that prosperity wouldn't be limited to "a few of us who do spectacularly well." 

It was a noteworthy declaration for Obama, who has often shied from the populist rhetoric animating the Democratic Party's progressive wing. The president's plans have already drawn complaints from some Republicans, who call it class warfare. 

But Obama remained undeterred, telling lawmakers he would press for legislation to provide paid sick leave and challenging them to raise the minimum wage.

"To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it," Obama said to applause. "If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise."

He also chided Republicans who applauded when he said he had no more campaigns to run. "I know because I won both of them," he said. 

RELATED: Joni Ernst delivers official GOP response, but not the only one

Obama's address, the sixth of his presidency and the first before a Congress controlled completely by Republicans, came amid clear evidence that the economy is finally coming out of its long post-recession doldrums. Unemployment is at its lowest point since the 2008 crash, consumer confidence has doubled, the GDP has seen a complete turnaround, the deficit has been curbed, and low gas prices are expected to help grow consumer spending. More Americans are satisfied with the economy than at any point in the past 10 years, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll.

The president's job approval ratings have gotten a lift along with the good economic news, giving him a bit more running room in challenging GOP lawmakers. Among other things, he took a dig at Republican opposition to his policies over his term and a half as president. 

"At every step, we were told our goals were misguided or too ambitious; that we would crush jobs and explode deficits," Obama noted. "Instead, we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in fifty years."

While heralding the improving economic landscape, Obama used his remarks to address persistent middle class anxiety around wages and the continued financial challenges facing many families. He planned to call for community college to be made free for low-income Americans who qualify, and will propose tax relief for the middle class that will be paid for by leveraging new taxes on the nation's highest earners. Both proposals are unlikely to make any progress through the GOP Congress.

"Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement — and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year," the president said.

Obama also touched on some hot button issues, including immigration. Without making a direct reference to his controversial executive action plan to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., he urged Congress -- and voters -- to view the matter in personal terms. "Surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," he said.

Obama, the first black president, also addressed the matter of racial bias in policing, a matter that has roiled his presidency with the deaths of young black men at the hands of law enforcement. He noted the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, but also touched on the dangers faced by many police. "Surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift," he said. 

Obama also spoke out against discrimination against an array of minority groups. "That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,' he said. Gay marriage, he added, is "a story of freedom."

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Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a rising star among the newly elected Republican class swept into office in the 2014 midterm elections, gave the official GOP response to Obama's remarks. While calling for Washington to be more productive and largely avoiding direct criticism of the president, Ernst called his signature health care law "a failed policy" that had hurt families. 

Several other Republicans, many with an eye to the 2016 presidential race, planned to deliver their own responses as well including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who issued his response hours before Obama spoke. "There are two things certain about the Obama administration -- debt and taxes," Huckabee said in a statement.

In taking credit for the economy more aggressively, White House aides said the speech represented a new chapter in Obama's presidency aimed at claiming vindication not just for individual policies but for a broader philosophy of government intervention to support of the middle class. They likened the effort to Ronald Reagan's evangelism for "trickle-down economics," which helped define debates over taxes and spending long after he left office. 

"One of the things that the president worried a lot about in 2012 if he lost … is this idea that he would lose, [Republican nominee Mitt] Romney would come in, do a bunch of his policies and then Romney would catch the economy on the way up and everyone would be like 'Romneynomics works!'" a senior administration official told reporters before the speech. "Then we would spend another 20 years trying to beat that back."

Instead, Obama's the one presiding over an accelerating recovery — and he wants all the benefits that come with it.