*President Obama warned in his State of the Union address Tuesday that the nation’s middle class is at risk because of growing economic inequality, and argued that the government must do more to preserve the basic American dream.

In a speech that is likely to set the theme of his 2012 re-election bid, Obama said “the basic American promise” that hard work can allow one to own a home and support a family are at risk if the government doesn’t do more to balance the scale between the nation’s rich and poor.

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“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important,” Obama declared. “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.  What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values.  We have to reclaim them.”

In his third such address to the Congress, Obama’s focus was not just on the future—as he laid out broad proposals to boost an “economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.”

But in a message that was unmistakably aimed at voters in the upcoming presidential election, Obama reminded his audience that the nation’s economic troubles began long before he arrived at the White House, starting with the collapse of the nation’s leading banks in 2008 due to lax regulation and “bad behavior.”

“In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly four million jobs.  And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect,” Obama said.

But he argued that the country is turning around under his policies, pointing to 3 million jobs created in the last 22 months. In a sign that Obama will campaign against the Republican-led Congress as much as a his eventual GOP presidential rival, the president indicated he will take a hard stand against lawmakers determined to block his economic agenda.

“The state of our union is getting stronger, and we’ve come too far to turn back now,” Obama insisted. “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.”

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