ORLANDO, Fla. - President Obama had a television audience of millions and a congressional crowd of 535 members as he delivered his State of the Union speech last night, but he largely had one target: Mitt Romney.
With coded references, the Democrat drew a sharp contrast between himself and the Republican presidential candidate White House officials and campaign aides believe is still their likeliest general election opponent.
“On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen,” the president said near the outset of his speech, alluding to a famed New York Times op-ed piece in which Romney called for the managed bankruptcy of the industry in which his father, George, one worked and oversaw as governor of Michigan.
On the subject of taxes, Obama said: “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 spoke at the end of a day in which Romney released tax returns showing he paid effective an tax rate of 13.9 percent on $20 million worth of income in 2010.
“When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich,” Obama said. “It’s because they understand that when I get a tax break I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference.”
In his speech after winning the New Hampshire primary, Romney attacked Republican rivals who criticized his record at Bain Capital and accused Obama of engaging in “the bitter politics of envy.”
Obama also seemed to be focusing on Romney as he discussed the mortgage foreclosure crisis, which has plagued Florida - which holds its primary Tuesday and where the Republicans are now campaigning - and Nevada, which votes next on Feb. 4.
In October, Romney told a Las Vegas newspaper that the foreclosure crisis should be allowed to “let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
Last night, Obama said: “Responsible homeowners shouldn’t have to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom to get some relief.”
Obama, who has watched as his potential Republican rivals have held court during a series of 18 debates, seized upon his largest annual audience with own general election pitch.
He argued, for example, that the revival the auto industry is experiencing in Detroit can be emulated by other industries.
“It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh,” he said, highlighting major cities in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, the latter being the scene of this year’s Democratic National Convention.
In an interview with NBC News after the speech, Romney agreed that Obama was targeting him.
“Well, in some respects, I have to compliment the president on adopting a whole series of ideas that I’ve been speaking about for the last several years,” Romney said. “If you want to get the economy going, lower corporate tax rates; of course he’s raised them. Lower the level of regulation; of course, he’s added regulation at three times the rate of his predecessor. Take advantage of all of our energy resources; he’s really held off on coal, on oil, on gas, on nuclear. Then, he said crack down on China. Those are the things I’ve been saying. Unfortunately, what he’s been doing is the exact opposite of that, and that’s one of the reasons it’s been so hard for this economy to recover.”
The former Massachusetts governor, speaking from Orlando after a day of campaigning across Florida, said: “He seems to think America’s on the right track and things are going well. ...The idea that we’re on the right track is something which is very foreign to the people here.”Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.