'We've come too far to turn back,' Obama says in State of the Union

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

With an unfinished legislative agenda from last year and with Election Day nine months from now, President Barack Obama went before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night to offer his proposals for economic growth and to draw sharp contrasts with his Republican foes.

He contended that, “The state of our Union is getting stronger. And we've come too far to turn back now. As long as I'm President, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

But Obama also painted a dire scenario of a nation divided into a wealthy elite and a mass of struggling Americans on the verge of insolvency.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said. “Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

Obama pointed to some signs of economic revival: “In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs.  Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.  American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.  Together, we've agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion.  And we've put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like that never happens again.”

Obama was speaking against the backdrop of an improving economy which is slowly recovering from the recession of 2007-2009. Employment has shown signs of revival in recent months, with the jobless rate falling from 10 percent in October of 2009 to 8.5 percent last month.

But there were still almost one million fewer people employed last month than when Obama signed his $825 billion stimulus bill into law in February 2009.

Reviving a proposal that the Senate rejected in 2010, Obama made a vigorous pitch for changing the law to allow young illegal immigrants to become American citizens. "Hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country," he said, "were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation."

Obama was also using his speech Tuesday night to expand on the “fairness” theme he discussed in his Kansas speech last month.

Slideshow: Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

He made the case for raising taxes on higher-income people such as legendary Omaha investor Warren Buffett who have income from capital gains and dividends.

"Tax reform should follow the Buffett rule: If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30 percent in taxes," the president delcared. "If you're earning a million dollars a year, you shouldn't get special tax subsidies or deductions. On the other hand, if you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up."

He added, "You can call this class warfare all you want.  But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes?  Most Americans would call that common sense."

Foreign policy played a relatively small role in Obama's speech.

Addressing the threat of Iran getting nuclear weapons, Obama said, “A world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran's nuclear program now stands as one.  The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions….”

He said, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.  But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”

Obama began his address by celebrating military successes: “For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.  Most of al Qaeda's top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban's momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.”

Further coverage of the president's speech:

Recommended: Obama draws contrast to GOP on immigration

Recommended: Read text of Obama's State of the Union address

Obama: Millionaires should pay at least 30 percent in taxes

Republican response: State of the union is 'grave,' but GOP can rescue

For complete coverage of the State of the Union, visit NBC Politics.