WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama issued an election year challenge on immigration to Republican lawmakers Tuesday, pledging to sign even limited reform and warning that opponents are out of excuses.
With Hispanic voters making up vital constituencies in battleground states such as Arizona, Colorado and Florida, Obama insisted "we should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."
"The opponents of action are out of excuses."
"But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let's at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.
"Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away."
Obama's reelection campaign has previously blasted Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney over his tough talk against undocumented immigrants.
Romney had vowed to veto a law that would offer permanent residency for skilled but undocumented migrants who graduated from US schools or took part in military service.
Romney has sided with party hardliners to advocate a plan that would see undocumented immigrants removed from US soil even if it means breaking up families.
"We've got to stop illegal immigration. That means turning off the magnets of amnesty, in-state tuition for illegal aliens, employers that knowingly hire people that have come here illegally," Romney said in November.
Obama himself has yet to make a major push behind a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul.
Fair economy from "top to bottom"
Obama demanded large tax hikes on millionaires to finance a fair economy from "top to bottom" as he sketched a populist vision to convince voters to give him a second White House term.
"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," Obama said.
"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," he said, playing on rising anger over inequality in post-recession America.
In the annual ritual, Obama's best chance for months to directly reach millions of voters, he mostly surveyed domestic issues, as expected as he fires up his campaign machine.
But he did touch on several simmering foreign crises -- including the deepening nuclear showdown with Iran, which has exposed him to searing criticism and claims of weakness from Republican White House hopefuls.
"Let there be no doubt. America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal," Obama said, earning a standing ovation in the House of Representatives.
"But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course, and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations."
The president, in a defiant, firm tone, said the "defining issue" of our time was how to safeguard the basic "American promise" that hard work could lead to a decent lifestyle.
He mounted a staunch defense of his efforts to revive the economy, which will form the central clash of the presidential election, as Republicans argue he delayed the recovery by wasting stimulus funds and piling up debt.
He touted the creation of more than three million jobs in less than two years, said he had saved the US auto industry and predicted American manufacturing, the engine of the economy, would rise again.
"The state of our union is getting stronger, and we've come too far to turn back now," Obama said, delivering a sharp warning to Republicans expected to block almost all of the jobs and recovery plans contained in his speech.
"As long as I'm president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum," said Obama, staring into the ranks of lawmakers packed onto brown padded seats.
"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," he said to loud cheers from Democrats.
Obama hailed the killing of Osama bin Laden last year by a US special forces team in a daring raid into Pakistan and his promise kept to end the Iraq war as election year proof of his credentials as commander-in-chief.
He held up the heroism of the Navy SEAL team that snuffed out the Al-Qaeda leader as a metaphor for the way feuding US politicians should join in the name of national renewal.
"The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know there is someone behind you, watching your back," he said.
"So it is with America."
Among job creation and economic measures, Obama demanded millionaires pay at least 30 percent tax rates, tapping into public anger at low rates paid by the rich, including his possible Republican election foe Mitt Romney.
Romney on Tuesday reported income of $21.7 million in 2010 from investments and an estimated $20.9 million in 2011 -- and in 2010 paid just over $3 million in taxes, or 13.9 percent.
The president also pledged to keep up pressure on China over intellectual property piracy and promised to new measures to combat fraud in the finance industry and the mortgage sector.
But the president's tone on taxes set up an immediate clash with Republicans, given his demand for higher taxes for the wealthy.
"It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody," he said, striking his core reelection message.
But Republicans, who want to consign him to the ignominy of a single White House term, reacted angrily.
In a new advertisement, Romney, who earlier said Obama's State of the Union must be his last, compared the hope whipped up by the president in 2008 to his actual job performance.
"Three years ago, we measured candidate Obama by his hopeful promises and his slogans. Today President Obama has amassed an actual record of debt, decline and disappointment," Romney said.
And Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor chosen to give the official Republican response to Obama, accused the president of adopting divisive election year tactics.
"No feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others," Daniels said, according to excerpts of his speech.
Looking abroad, Obama hailed the demise of Libya's Moamer Kadhafi -- implicitly rebutting Republican criticisms that he "led from behind" in the crisis -- and warned Syria's Bashar al-Assad his regime's days were numbered.