By David Jackson, USA TODAY
President Obama outlined plans Tuesday to revive American prosperity
by rebuilding "a thriving middle class," calling it the "true engine of
America's economic growth" during his annual State of the Union Address.
the economy and creating good middle-class jobs "must be the North Star
that guides our efforts," Obama told a joint session of Congress and a
national television audience.
While devoting most of his speech to
jobs and the economy, Obama also announced plans to pull 34,000 U.S.
troops from Afghanistan over the next year, reducing the American
presence by about half as part of a planned overall withdrawal. "By the
end of next year," Obama said, "our war in Afghanistan will be over."
president also condemned the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran,
and pledged to work with Russia to continue reducing American and
Russian nuclear stockpiles.
In a litany of economic proposals,
Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage - from $7.25 to $9 per
hour - as well as new plans to speed up infrastructure projects, promote
manufacturing, improve science and math education and develop
alternative sources of energy.
Throughout his speech, Obama tied
the economy to other aspects of his legislative agenda, including
proposals for a major overhaul of the immigration system, legislation to
combat gun violence, and programs to address climate change.
urged members of Congress - especially Republicans -- to avoid the
"sequester," $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect
March 1. The president said these "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts" would
jeopardize military readiness and "devastate priorities" like
education, energy, and medical research.
Instead, he urged a
"balanced" plan to reduce the nation's $16 trillion-plus debt with both
spending cuts and new tax revenues derived from closing loopholes and
ending certain deductions.
The State of the Union also featured a
new plan to protect the nation's infrastructure from cyber attacks and
the creation of an election reform commission to deal with challenges
such as long lines at polling places and voter registration problems.
Republicans said Obama's plans rely too much on government and not
enough on the market to rebuild the middle class. In the formal
Republican response to the State of the Union, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. -
a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016 - planned to say
that past presidents from both parties "have known that our free
enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.
President Obama?" Rubio planned to say, according to excerpts released
earlier. "He believes it's the cause of our problems."
also said that Obama's call for new tax revenues amounts to a tax hike
that will further slow the economy, and that the debt should be reduced
by spending cuts alone. They said Obama got a tax increase - in the form
of higher income tax rates - as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal reached
"So we're done with the tax part of the equation," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. before Obama's speech.
the address, Obama said that Social Security and Medicare recipients
should bear the brunt of debt reduction, and that "the wealthiest and
most powerful" should contribute as well. He also pledged to work with
Republicans to make "modest" changes to entitlement programs, and to
simplify the tax system.
Obama said that while Americans don't
expect government to solve all the nation's problems, but they do expect
the parties to work together. Seeking to pressure Republicans, he urged
Congress to avoid past disputes over the fiscal cliff, the debt
ceiling, and the budget that damaged the nation's credit rating and
threatened to shut down the government.
"The greatest nation on
Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one
manufactured crisis to another," Obama said.
The president spoke
amid reports that the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9% in January,
and that the overall economy contracted in the last quarter of 2012.
his plans for the middle class, Obama said lawmakers should ask
themselves three questions: "How do we attract more jobs to our shores?
How do we equip our people with the skills they need to get those jobs?
And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
Obama also said his proposed new programs are paid for, and will not increase budget deficits by "one dime."
his proposals: A "fix-it first" program to speed up certain
infrastructure projects, and more pre-school for children from low- and
The president also called for three new
"Manufacturing Innovation Institutes," government-business partnerships
seeking to develop new technologies; a "Master Teacher Corps" to improve
math and science education, and an "Energy Security Trust" with the
goal of moving cars and trucks off oil.
He renewed previous calls
for major legislation, including his immigration overhaul plan that
includes a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million illegal
immigrants, an item some Republicans have criticized as amnesty for
The president also said Congress needs to confront
climate change, "for the sake of our children and our future." One
solution, he said, is developing "clean energy" legislation.
Obama called on congressional votes on proposals for "universal
background checks," a renewal of the assault weapons ban, and
restrictions on the sizes of ammunition magazines.
Guns were a
primary issue for many in the audience in the U.S House chamber. Both
the White House and members of Congress invited families and friends who
have endured the trauma of shootings -- "more than two dozen Americans
whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence," as Obama put.
guest list for first lady Michelle Obama included the parents of Hadiya
Pendleton, a 15-year-old from Chicago who was shot in the back and
killed last month in an apparent act of gang violence just a mile away
from the Obamas' house.
The first lady also welcomed a teacher
from the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six
adults died in a Dec. 14 shooting. Members of Congress wore green
ribbons in honor of the Newtown victims.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote" on gun legislation. Obama said, as do other communities "ripped open by gun violence."
White House guests - invited to personalize various aspects of the
president's agenda - included a police officer wounded in a mass
shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee; members of the military; and
business, education and health care professionals.
congressional Republicans also brought guests. Rep. Steve Stockman,
R-Texas, invited former rock-and-roller Ted Nugent, an outspoken critic
of gun control who said last year he would wind up "dead or in jail" if
Obama won re-election.
During a discussion of foreign affairs on
foreign affairs, Obama made an apparent reference to his drone program
in pledging to work with Congress to insure that "our targeting,
detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws
and our systems of checks and balances."
And he again pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make a nuclear weapon.
announcing his visit to the Middle East next month, Obama pledged to
help with Egypt's painful transition to democracy, and to pressure the
murderous regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
television viewers included members of Organizing for America, the
political action group formed by Obama 2012 campaign officials. OFA is
sponsoring about 1,200 State of the Union "watch parties" across the
Obama is scheduled to make a conference call to these
gatherings immediately after the speech, urging them to lobby Congress
on behalf of his agenda.