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.’’
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“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 planned to announce 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, according to an administration official.
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, slated to be delivered after Obama’s speech, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) was also expected to focus 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 planned to say, according to excerpts released by his office.
“Presidents in both parties . . . have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity,” Rubio planned to say. “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.