“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.