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News Analysis: Obama marks start of 2016 White House race with State of Union speech

By Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Xinhua) -- In an opening salvo for the 2016 race for the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday night touted the U.S. economic comeback and spelled out his party' vision for the country's future during a nationally broadcast speech viewed by millions of Americans.

Rather than following the usual State of the Union protocol of going through a laundry list of initiatives, the president instead underscored the partial U.S. economic rebound in a nationally televised annual State of the Union speech.

"Tonight, we turn the page," he told Congress during a one-hour speech themed on what the president called "middle class economics."

"Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined. Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs. Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming," he said.

Experts contend that the speech was aimed at sending a clear message to the public and spelling out Democrats' vision for the country in the lead up to the 2016 race to the White House.

"More than 30 million people are expected to watch the speech, so this is the opening pitch for the 2016 elections," Brookings Institution's senior fellow Darrell West told Xinhua in an interview.

"Obama hopes to set the long-term agenda of the Democratic party by proposing policies that he thinks are right even if they are unpopular with Republicans," West said.

"It is an opportunity to explain why income inequality is a serious problem in the United States and why the government needs to take actions that help the middle class do better than they have over the last 30 years," he said.

"There will be a strong GOP reaction against his ideas, but it will force Republicans to explain what they are doing to help the middle class," West said.

Republican strategist Ford O'Connell also told Xinhua that Obama's focus of this speech was to look forward to 2016. "He's trying to frame the race heading forward by focusing on economic mobility and stagnant wages," he said.

"The question is can Republicans come up with a set of solutions or at least a road map of solutions to beat the Democrats to the punch. If they can, they have a great shot of winning the White House in 2016," O'Connell said.

The last six years of U.S. politics has been characterized by a bitter partisan rivalry between Obama and Congressional Republicans, with little progress made in reforming the nation's broken immigration system or fixing the burdensome and inefficient tax system.

Moreover, after a major Republican sweep in November's midterm elections that led to a now Republican-led Congress, it is unlikely that the two sides will come to an agreement on any major legislation going forward, leaving Obama to focus on maintaining Democratic control of the White House in 2016, experts said.

The two sides are at odds over the direction the country should take. Obama has pushed for what many critics call left-leaning policies, some of which have been unpopular with many Americans, such as his landmark but controversial healthcare overhaul.

While the Republican Party has pushed back against those policies, critics have billed Republican lawmakers as belonging to the party of no ideas, as they are viewed as providing no viable alternatives to Democrats' proposals, despite their harsh criticism of Democrats.

The speech comes at a time when the Republicans just regained ground after losing the 2012 elections. The monumental failure then made the GOP realize it must make greater strides in appealing to single women, Hispanics, blacks and younger voters in an increasingly multi-cultural society.

Experts, pundits and the Republicans themselves say that the Republican Party needs to reform to appeal to groups beyond its older, whiter base.

But at the same time, voters have expressed a desire to change the trajectory they feel the country has taken during the last six years of the Obama administration, in which millions remain jobless amid a very slowly improving economy.

"Republicans win (the midterms) because people agree with all of their policy plans. They won because most Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction and they don't think the economy is growing fast enough," O'Connell said.

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