(WASHINGTON) — Pursuing an aggressive and diverse early second-term agenda, President Obama turned his focus Tuesday night to the economy, using his State of the Union address to unveil new government initiatives aimed at creating jobs.
The defining duty of the new Congress and new administration is to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” Obama said Tuesday night from the House chamber.
“That must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” he said.
Obama’s proposals had a familiar ring, including re-packaged economic ideas but also offering several bold new measures aimed at boosting the middle class.
None of the proposals would add to the deficit ,”by a single dime,” Obama pledged, with costs offset by savings carved out in the budget and from money saved from ending two wars, he claimed.
“It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Obama said.
For the first time as president, Obama called for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour by 2015. He proposed to ensure future increases by indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
He proposed a national goal of universal pre-school education, an effort to help states provide tens of thousands of low- to middle-income four-year-old children access to quality public education from an earlier age.
And, to heal the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges, Obama offered a $50 billion “fix it first” infrastructure program that would prioritize repair of existing structures before building new ones.
“Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation,” Obama said. “How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
Answers to those questions, the president suggested, include redoubling investments in clean energy technologies — a step which he said would both benefit the environment and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” he said.
He called for doubling the amount of renewable electricity generated in the U.S. by 2020, and announced an energy version of his “Race to the Top” education program that would give states grants for the best energy efficiency programs.
In tandem with his economic focus, Obama announced the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this time next year, cutting in half the current force and marking a quickened pace for the final exit of U.S. combat forces by a 2014 deadline.
There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. Obama has vowed to bring nearly all of them home by the end of next year, though a small contingent will likely remain to train Afghan forces and assist counterterrorism operations, the president didn’t mention.
Obama touched briefly on his recently-unveiled proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, expand rights for gay and lesbian Americans and curb an epidemic of gun violence.
With dozens of victims of gun violence looking on from the House gallery, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and families of victims from shootings at Newtown, Conn., Oak Creek, Wisc., and Aurora, Colo., Obama made an emotional plea for an up-or-down vote on his gun control plan.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said of proposed restrictions on assault-style weapons and high capacity magazines, and enhanced background checks, among other measures.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” he said. “But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
On foreign policy, Obama offered stern warnings to aspiring nuclear powers, Iran and North Korea, which conducted a nuclear test overnight in violation of international agreements. “Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further,” Obama said.
He also announced he will make a trip to the Middle East next month, which will include a stop in Israel — his first as president. “We will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and lasting peace,” Obama said of the message he plans to bring to the region.
Giving a nod to emerging threats to peace, the president announced a long-anticipated executive order aimed at combating cyberterrorism from foreign governments and independent groups.
The order directs federal agencies to share information about electronic threats with U.S. infrastructure companies and requires the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop a framework of cybersecurity practices to reduce risks to critical infrastructure. “We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy,” he said.
Obama’s speech — his fourth annual address before a joint session of Congress — comes at a critical juncture for the U.S. economy, with unemployment hovering near 8 percent and new government economic forecasts showing sluggish growth through the next year.
Partisan wrangling over federal deficits and debt has raised the possibility that deep, across-the-board spending cuts will take effect March 1 and that the federal government could shut down at the end of next month without a budget deal. Both could further dampen economic growth and imperil the nation’s credit rating, experts say.
Obama signaled a persistent desire to try for a big deal on the deficit, calling for compromise on spending cuts and tax increases, highlighting the human impact of the deeper cuts if they’re allowed to go through.
“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit,” he said. “The politics will be hard for both sides… but the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.”
But Republicans remain staunchly opposed to any new revenue, insisting it’s up to Obama to tackle the drivers of the national debt.
“He doesn’t have the courage to take on the liberal side of his own party,” House Speaker Boehner said at a breakfast briefing with television correspondents and anchors. “He just doesn’t have the courage to lead when it comes to our long-term spending problem.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, delivering the official Republican response to Obama, argued that the president’s agenda would undermine the middle class rather than help it, by increasing taxes and adding to the debt.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors,” Rubio said, invoking his own working-class roots.
There were signs of bipartisanship at the annual Washington ritual on Capitol Hill. The “date night” approach of recent years, with many members crossing the aisle to sit with a colleague of the opposing party, has given way to two coalitions of Republicans and Democrats seeking compromise.
More than 40 members pledged to wear orange lapel pins branded with “problem solvers,” showing a commitment to “substantive cooperation” in the new Congress, according to the group coordinating the effort. Dozens of other members planned to wear green and silver ribbons — the colors of Sandy Hook Elementary School — to show solidarity with victims of gun violence and support for new gun control measures. The effort was led by Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island.
Obama will waste little time building a public campaign for his agenda. Immediately following the address, he hosts a live conference call with supporters of his new outside advocacy group, Organizing for Action.
The president hits the road Wednesday morning to highlight key proposals from the speech. He will visit an auto parts manufacturer in North Carolina to promote new incentives for hiring, an Atlanta community center to talk about job skills training, and a Chicago-area school to discuss gun violence and education.
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