Obama goes after the rich in State of the Union speech
US President Barack Obama will use his first State of the Union address since Republicans took control of Congress to dare his political opponents to reject a populist proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy.
For the first time in his presidency, Mr Obama arrived at Congress for his annual speech to face both a Senate and a House of Representatives dominated by the Republican Party.
Rather than offer a compromise that might be palatable to the Republicans, who triumphed in November's elections, Mr Obama was set to focus on what he calls "middle class economics" with $320bn (€275bn) in new taxes on the rich and on financial firms.
The money would be used to pay for tax cuts for lower earners and a plan to finance two years of education for students at universities intended for the less wealthy.
Republicans immediately rejected the plan. "This is not a serious proposal," said a spokesman for Paul Ryan, a leading Republican congressman on budget issues.
Although Mr Obama knows his plan has almost no chance of becoming reality, he hopes that the Republicans' opposition will at least put them in the politically uncomfortable position of being aligned with America's millionaires against working families.
His confidence will be buoyed by a new 'Washington Post' poll showing his approval rating back at 50pc, up a clear nine points since mid-December and the highest it's been since May 2013.
Mr Obama's improved ratings are likely to have been driven by the improving economic picture and low petrol prices as a result of the global slump in oil prices.
While there is little chance of agreement on economic policy, the White House and Republicans may find more in common on foreign policy and national security. Mr Obama was due to propose new measures on cyber-security in the wake of the suspected North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures.
He was also set to ask Congress to pass a bill giving specific authority to continue the US-led campaign against the Islamic State (Isil).
Both issues could potentially offer space for agreement.
However, the President and his political opponents will remain sharply divided over Mr Obama's diplomatic outreach to Cuba, which will see an American embassy open in Havana for the first time in 50 years.
Mr Obama will defend his deal with Raúl Castro, the Cuban leader, and likely call for Congress to further ease sanctions on the Communist island.
Republicans have been sharply critical of the détente with Cuba and Marco Rubio, a hawkish senator from Florida, has invited the daughter of a Cuban democracy activist to Mr Obama's speech as a way of demonstrating his opposition.
Mr Obama in turn has invited Alan Gross, an American aid worker who was imprisoned by the Castro regime for five years but released under the terms of the agreement announced last month.
Senior US officials will arrive in Havana later today for the first round of high level talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.
Republicans are also likely to ignore his request to hold off on passing a bill that would automatically levy new sanctions on Iran in the event that negotiations over its nuclear programme fail.
Mr Obama has said the bill could derail ongoing negotiations and promised to veto it but so far Republicans have said they will continue.
Unlike in previous years when the White House has closely guarded the details of Mr Obama's State of the Union announcements, this year the president has released many of his proposals ahead of time.
The decision partly reflects the diminishing value of the televised speech at a time when Americans are increasingly get their information from other sources.
Mr Obama's speech in January 2014 garnered around 33.3 million viewers, around 20 million fewer than the 52.4 million who tuned into his first address in 2009.
Just under 67 million people watched Bill Clinton give his first State of the Union address in 1993.
The day after the speech, Mr Obama will travel to Idaho to try to reinforce the themes he laid out before Congress.
He will also do interviews with three YouTube celebrities in an effort to reach younger Americans. (© Daily Telegraph, London)