With Debbie Bosanek sitting in first lady Michelle Obama's box, it was clear what Tuesday night's State of the Union Address to Congress was really about - contrasting President Obama's vision for America with that of whomever becomes the Republican nominee to replace him.
Bosanek, of course, is billionaire Warren Buffett's secretary, the one who pays a higher effective tax rate than a man who makes millions of dollars more than she does. She has become the poster child in Obama's campaign for tax-code changes that include a "Buffett rule," which would prevent bosses from paying taxes at astoundingly lower rates than their employees.
Obama didn't script it, but it didn't hurt that his appeal for a fairer tax code came on the heels of Republican-establishment favorite Mitt Romney's release of his 2010 return, which showed his tax rate at about 14 percent. Many middle-class taxpayers pay at a much higher rate. That's because they are paying largely on earned income while Romney's cash comes mainly from investments, which aren't treated the same as wages.
Thanks to the Republican debates that preceded it, Obama's comments Tuesday night concerning the disparity between what most Americans earn and pay in taxes and what the wealthy pay had already become the backdrop for this presidential election.
The question is whether the race will be decided by voters more attuned to the Occupy Wall Street message that growing income disparity has weakened the nation.
"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. 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," said Obama.
"Let's never forget," he said, "millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that does the same. It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."
The president's speech was very different compared to his address a year ago, in which he offered an olive branch to Republicans in Congress only to have it blithely ignored. House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders have lambasted Obama as being ineffective, but Obama's remarks blaming GOP obstructionists for his initiatives' lack of success struck a chord.
"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," he said. "We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits."