JUDY WOODRUFF: It's State of the Union night. President Obama will go before the nation this evening to lay out his view of the United States' progress, problems, and priorities.
Ray Suarez begins our coverage.
RAY SUAREZ: When the president takes the House rostrum tonight, he's expected to bring the Congress a plea for economic fairness.
He said as much in a video to supporters on Saturday posted on his campaign website.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can go in two directions. One is towards less opportunity and less fairness. Or we can fight for where I think we need to go: building an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few.
On Tuesday night, I'm going to talk about how we will get there. I'm going to lay out a blueprint for an economy that's built to last.
RAY SUAREZ: White House aides said the address would touch on four key themes: boosting American manufacturing, offering new education and training programs for workers, increasing alternative energy sources, and strengthening bedrock American values.
The president will also make a renewed push for higher taxes on the wealthy, including a minimum tax on those who make at least $1 million a year. It's the so-called Buffett rule, named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who has famously observed that, under the current system, his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does.
In fact, Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, will join Mrs. Obama tonight in the first lady's box in the gallery.
In this election year, the president will, in effect, be making the argument for his reelection when he comes to Capitol Hill tonight. But already, hours before the address, Republicans, both here on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, were voicing their objections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke on the Senate floor this morning.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky.: It's hard not to feel a sense of disappointment even before tonight's speech is delivered, because, while we don't yet know all the specifics, we do know the goal. The goal isn't to conquer the nation's problems. It's to conquer Republicans. The goal isn't to prevent gridlock, but to guarantee it.
RAY SUAREZ: Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid urged the opposition to be open to the president's ideas.
SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: For three years, the president has reached out to Republicans. Now is the time to work with him on common ideas to boost legislation, not stalemate. I ask my Republican colleagues to give his bipartisan vision the consideration it deserves.
RAY SUAREZ: Still, the men who want Mr. Obama's job charge, there's nothing bipartisan about the president's plan.
Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich spoke at separate events in Florida.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Tonight, we're also going to get treated to more divisive rhetoric from a desperate campaigner in chief. It's shameful for a president to use the State of the Union to divide our nation.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): Tonight, the president will explain that it was all George W. Bush's fault.
NEWT GINGRICH: This is the fourth year of his presidency. He needs to get over it.
RAY SUAREZ: The president himself goes on the road tomorrow to make his case. He will campaign in five swing states over the next few days.
GWEN IFILL: We get more on the president's speech and his reelection-year agenda from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. I spoke with him a short time ago.
Jay Carney, thank you for joining us.
Already, the Republicans have been out today in advance of the president's speech tonight talking about debt, decline and disappointment, in advance of the speech. What do you say to that?
JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: Well, I think it's unfortunate, because what could be more political than criticizing a speech before you have even heard it?
The president will deliver the State of the Union address tonight. And it's not a political speech. It's not a campaign speech. It's a vision for where he believes we ought to go with this country as we build an economy that is strong and firm and built to last for the future, where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
Now, it's going to be policy-specific, filled with proposals to help enhance manufacturing in the United States, enhance the development of skills for American workers. And it is infused with American values. So, I would have hoped that critics like that would have waited to hear what the president said, and hear his call for all of us to work together, Republicans and Democrats alike, to get things done for the American people and grow this economy.
GWEN IFILL: In an election-year situation, the president's final State of the Union speech of this term, is it fair to say that he is using the bully pulpit tonight as a way to launch his reelection campaign?
JAY CARNEY: You know, it's actually not the case, because there will be plenty of time for President Obama to engage in the election. Right now, because of the support he has within his own party, he doesn't have a primary contest. That's happening on the other side in the Republican Party.
He's able to do his job. You know, he didn't run and wasn't elected to the presidency just so he could run again. He ran because he saw a need to change the direction of this country, because the middle class was being squeezed. It was even before the recession, Gwen, as you know, middle class saw its incomes either stagnating or declining, while the very wealthiest Americans saw their share of the pie grow substantially larger.
We need to address the challenges that our economy is facing right now. And we need to do it together. And he will call on Congress to work with him. And he will say that where he can act administratively using his executive authority to move our economy along, to help it grow, he will do that as well.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about acting administratively, I assume that means without congressional endorsement. Is that going to create a problem in that room and beyond tonight?
JAY CARNEY: No, I don't think so, because, for example, just last week, we were in Orlando, Fla. The president was at Walt Disney World talking about an initiative to bring more foreign tourists to the United States, especially from growing, growing economies, like China and Brazil.
When those foreign tourists come to the United States and visit places like Walt Disney World or any of the magnificent places across the country that tourists go to, they're bringing their money and spending it here and creating jobs in the United States.
The initiatives he announced last week were all executive actions, an executive order and some executive initiatives that didn't require congressional action. So that's something that I think Democrats and Republicans can support.
He's just simply using every tool in his toolbox to make progress on his number-one priority, growing the economy, creating jobs here at home.
GWEN IFILL: Presumably, as most presidents before him, the president will say tonight that the State of the Union is strong, yet every measure shows most Americans think that the union is actually heading in the wrong -- on the wrong track, in the wrong direction.
How does he bridge that gap in perception?
JAY CARNEY: Well, I think what he will say is that we are getting stronger.
But it is absolutely the case that when he took office, the economy in the United States of America was in freefall. And the devastating blow that the recession caused to this economy cost eight million jobs. And that's what he has been focused on dealing with since he took office.
And the fact is, ever since his policies began to take effect, the economy has been growing again and it's been creating jobs again, more than three million private sector jobs. Last year's private sector job creation in the United States was greater than in any year since 2005. That means we're moving in the right direction.
We have a long way to go. The recession was very, very deep. But we're moving in the right direction. There are some other positive trends, especially in American manufacturing. And you will hear the president talk about that tonight.
The manufacturing sector of our economy is growing for the first time since the 1990s. Additionally, we're seeing positive trends, like American companies in-sourcing, bring job back from China and putting them -- and building factories here in the United States and hiring American workers. These are all positive developments, but we have a long way to go.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, the president, is he going to renew his effort to tax the wealthy, something -- a fight that he basically lost with Congress last time?
JAY CARNEY: Well, he will certainly make the case, Gwen, that we need a system where everyone does his or her fair share.
And what that means is - you've heard him talk about the Buffett rule, referring to Warren Buffett, where millionaires and billionaires in this country should not be paying a lower effective tax rate than working and middle-class Americans. It's just not fair.
We have big things that we need to do to ensure that this economy remains strong, that we are the dominant economy globally in the 21st century, just we were in the 20th. We need to be investing in education, and innovation, research and development, clean energy technology. And we need to protect Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid for our most vulnerable citizens.
In order to do that, everybody has got to pay their fair share. And that means changing our tax code, reforming it in a way that millionaires and billionaires are not paying a much lower tax rate than regular folks out there.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Jay Carney, we will be watching for the president's words tonight.
Thank you very much for joining us.
JAY CARNEY: Thanks for having me, Gwen. It's always a pleasure.