President Obama appeared before a divided Congress on Tuesday night for his first State of the Union address of his second term, focusing on reviving the stagnant economy while also touching on the war in Afghanistan, gun violence and immigration law.
Three months after his convincing reelection victory, the president returned to the economic issues that dominated much of his first term. With a theme of strengthening the middle class, he proposed creating more jobs by investing in clean energy and creating new “manufacturing innovation institutes,” as well as spending more public money on education and improving the nation’s infrastructure. He also proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage.
“We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” Obama said early in his remarks. “Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.’’
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,’’ the president said.
Obama’s speech included a variety of proposals, including a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work on building bridges and other urgent infrastructure repairs, making “high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” he said in calling for a hike in the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage. “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families.”
Obama also turned to a foreign policy issue that has sparked intense debate within his administration. He announced in his speech that he is ordering the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to be reduced by more than half over the next 12 months.
The president’s decision — to remove 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops in the country by this time next year — sets a quicker pace for withdrawal than top military commanders had been seeking, according to U.S. officials.
In the Republican response, delivered after Obama’s speech, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) also focused on the middle class, but from a different perspective and with criticism for Obama’s approach. “This opportunity — to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life — it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy,” Rubio said.
“Presidents in both parties . . . have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity,” Rubio said. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
The newly reelected commander in chief appeared before Congress and millions of television viewers at a time when he is relatively strong politically yet vexed by a series of pressing challenges. Though Obama’s popularity is up in recent polls, he faces an economy that is still lagging and a national unemployment rate that ticked up last month.
There are also new threats on the horizon, with Democrats and Republicans locked in sometimes acrimonious debate over the federal debt ceiling, a series of automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect in March and a possible government shutdown.
In his address, the president again discussed his plans to avoid the automatic cuts — known as the sequester — with what he calls a more balanced approach of more targeted cuts and spending. He called for reforming costly entitlement programs such as Medicare and for a comprehensive overhaul of the federal tax code.
“I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won’t be easy,” Obama said. “The politics will be hard for both sides. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.
The president’s economic focus differed somewhat in tone from his second inaugural address last month. In that speech, he argued forcefully for social equality, including an expansion of gay rights.
Yet Obama also addressed the divisive issues that have dominated much of the public debate in recent weeks, renewing his call for comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration system and for a variety of proposals to reduce gun violence, including universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban.
The gun issue, thrust into the public discourse by the recent mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was to be a major subtext of the evening. First lady Michelle Obama’s guest list included a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the massacre took place, a police officer who responded to the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the parents of a girl killed by gunfire in Chicago this month.
The first lady attended the funeral on Saturday for the slain Chicago teen, Hadiya Pendleton, who had performed with her high school’s majorette team last month at the president’s second inaugural.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was gravely wounded in a mass shooting in 2011 in Tucson and is now a gun-control activist, attended with her husband, Mark Kelly. Democratic lawmakers also brought shooting victims from their home states to sit in the gallery, while on the Republican side, fiery conservative rocker Ted Nugent attended as a guest of Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.).
Nugent told an April convention of the National Rifle Association — which is fiercely resisting Obama’s gun-control initiatives — that he would end up “dead or in jail” if Obama was reelected.
In delivering his fourth State of the Union speech, Obama was also facing the weight of history. Rarely have State of the Union addresses moved public opinion, and rarely have they led to the kind of broad legislative accomplishments that presidents propose.
“Most of the speeches can be summarized in three words: boring, boring, boring,” said Allan Lichtman, author of “The 13 Keys to the Presidency.” “They tend to be laundry lists. But sometimes they rise above that.”
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