Washington (CNN)Barack Obama is done campaigning for president himself -- but he's still working to make Republicans play defense on issues where they've yet to prove themselves.
Obama's State of the Union wades into 2016
His upcoming State of the Union speech on Tuesday night will lay out a litany of Democratic pipe dreams that have little chance of becoming law. But his proposals are popular with voters and, if he's able to draw enough attention and his party picks up on them, could offer an early preview of 2016 election themes.
Top among those plans is one that would raise $320 billion over the next 10 years through a capital gains tax hike and new bank fees -- and use that money to cover his $60 billion pitch for free two-year community college tuition and $175 billion in new tax benefits for the middle class.
It's Obama's opening offer in what he hopes will be a negotiation with Republican congressional leaders over a major tax overhaul -- which Democrats also hope will free up money to fund some of their top priorities.
But conservatives are so likely to reject nearly all of Obama's pitch that top adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who appeared on two morning news shows on Sunday, got questions about whether the White House is even serious.
First, CBS "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer: "I mean, is this for real? Do you really think there's a chance that something like this could pass?"
And then NBC's "Meet the Press" moderator Chuck Todd: "If feels like a campaign because some of the things he's proposing -- nobody in Washington believes it can get through a Republican Congress."
Pfeiffer responded that what Obama is really trying to do is start a new debate -- one the President thinks he can win.
"Let me give you the theme of the speech in three words: Middle-class economics," he told Todd.
"He's going to talk about how middle-class economics brought us back from the brink and put us to a place where the economy's growing, jobs are growing, the deficit is shrinking, and it's all out of his plan to deal, as I said, with wage stagnation and declining economic mobility, in ways we can really help the middle class," Pfeiffer said.
In other words, the White House is thinking: If Republicans want to say no, let them try to explain why.
It's been a successful strategy for Democrats in recent years. Obama's re-election victory came over Mitt Romney, a candidate who struggled to overcome attacks on his personal wealth, to connect with people who don't have money.
Unemployment is now down to 5.6% from an Obama-era high of 10% in 2009. But the improving jobs numbers aren't helping many Americans overcome wages that have stagnated -- turning the looming 2016 campaign into a juxtaposition of ideas over how best to help Americans help themselves.
Republicans have long favored overhauling the tax code. But they argue a Robin Hood approach isn't fair -- or effective. They argue that taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals are already too high and penalize those who create jobs. Instead, they've favored measures that would allow corporations to bring money earned overseas back into the United States, which they say would jump-start job creation.
Still, they recognize that winning over middle-class voters -- and those who would like to join the middle class -- is their path to victory.
Recognizing some of his last campaign's mistakes, Romney -- who's now telling Republicans he's considering another run in 2016 -- is saying he'd like to make lifting wages a centerpiece of his next bid. He told the Republican National Committee on Friday in San Diego that he'd fight the "scourge of poverty" if he ran again.
"I believe in the post-Obama era we need to stand for safety, and for opportunity for all people, and we have to stand for helping lift people out of poverty," Romney said.
The Democratic push to narrow the income gap -- and take on financial institutions and Wall Street while doing it -- is also being driven by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who tweaked Romney in a tweet Sunday, highlighting the GOP's vulnerability.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's considering a 2016 bid, blasted Obama's proposal in an appearance on "Face the Nation."
"The notion first of all that in order for some people to do better, someone has to do worse is just not true. Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful," he said.
Rubio said he supports the broad thrust of some of Obama's ideas, like reforming higher education. But Obama's plan, he said, would pour more money into a "broken, existing system," rather than creating more competition and alternative certification programs.
"I wish he would spend more time on that, and less time trying to raise taxes and pour money into an outdated model that no longer works in the twenty first century," Rubio said.
Other congressional Republicans were similarly critical. On CNN's "State of the Union," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the President's tax proposal "a non-starter."
"We're not just one good tax increase away from prosperity in this nation," he said. "We have to make sure that we get a regulatory environment that's predictable, that we bring those tax rates down and that we quit spending this money that we don't have."