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Washington — Uncompromising and politically emboldened, President Barack Obama urged a deeply divided Congress Tuesday night to embrace his plans to use government money to create jobs and strengthen the nation’s middle class. He declared Republican ideas for reducing the deficit “even worse” than the unpalatable deals Washington had to stomach during his first term.
In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Obama conceded economic revival is an “unfinished task,” but he claimed clear progress and said he prepared to build on it as he embarks on four more years in office.
“We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong,” Obama said in an hourlong address to a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.
Yet with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, the economy remains a vulnerability for Obama and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.
Obama also announced new steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year. And he had a sharp rebuke for North Korea, which launched a nuclear test just hours before his remarks, saying, “Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further.”
In specific proposals for shoring up the economy in his second term, an assertive Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation’s roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit “by a single dime” although he didn’t explain how he would pay for his programs or how much they would cost.
In the Republican response to Obama’s address, rising GOP star Marco Rubio of Florida came right back at the president, saying his solution “to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Sen. Rubio, in prepared remarks, said presidents of both parties have recognized that the free enterprise system brings middle-class prosperity.
“But President Obama?” Rubio said. “He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
Still, throughout the House chamber there were symbolic displays of bipartisanship. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrived early and sat with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., just returned in January nearly a year after suffering a debilitating stroke. As a captain in the National Guard, Duckworth lost both her legs while serving in Iraq in 2004.
A few aisles away, the top two tax writers in Congress, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sat together.
But as a sign that divisions still remain, three of the most conservative Supreme Court justices skipped Obama’s speech. Six of the nine attended. Missing were Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Jobs and growth dominated Obama’s address. Many elements of his economic blueprint were repacked proposals from his first term that failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
Standing in Obama’s way now is a Congress that remains nearly as divided as it was during the final years of his first term, when Washington lurched from one crisis to another.
The president implored lawmakers to break through partisan logjams, asserting that “the greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.”
“Americans don’t expect government to solve every problem,” he said. “They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.”
Yet Obama offered few signs of being willing to compromise himself, instead doubling down on his calls to create jobs by spending more government money and insisting that lawmakers pay down the deficit through a combination of targeted spending cuts and tax increases. But he offered few specifics on what he wanted to see cut, focusing instead on the need to protect programs that help the middle class, elderly and poor.
He did reiterate his willingness to tackle entitlement changes, particularly on Medicare, though he has ruled out increasing the eligibility age for the popular benefit program for seniors.
Republicans are ardently opposed to Obama’s calls for legislating more tax revenue to reduce the deficit and offset broad the automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — that are to take effect March 1. The president accused GOP lawmakers of shifting the cuts from defense to programs that would help the middle class and elderly, as well as those supporting education and job training.
“That idea is even worse,” he said.
Obama broke little new ground on two agenda items he has pushed vigorously since winning re-election: overhauling the nation’s fractured immigration laws and enacting tougher gun control measures in the wake of the horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn. Yet he pressed for urgency on both, calling on Congress to send him an immigration bill “in the next few months” and insisting lawmakers hold votes on his gun proposals.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice.”
Numerous lawmakers wore green lapel ribbons in memory of those killed in the December shootings in Connecticut. Among those watching in the House gallery: the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed recently in a park just a mile from the president’s home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.
On the economy, Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2007, and administration officials said the increase would strengthen purchasing power. The president also wants Congress to approve automatic increases in the wage to keep pace with inflation.
Looking for common ground anywhere he could find it, Obama framed his proposal to boost the minimum wage by pointing out that even his GOP presidential rival liked the idea. He said, “Here’s an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”
Obama also renewed his calls for infrastructure spending, investments he sought repeatedly during his first term with little support from Republicans. He pressed lawmakers to approve a $50 billion “fix it first” program that would address the most urgent infrastructure needs.
Education also figures in Obama’s plans to boost American competitiveness in the global economy. Under his proposal, the federal government would help states provide pre-school for all 4-year-olds. Officials did not provide a cost for the pre-school programs but said the government would provide financial incentives to help states.
Among the other initiatives Obama is proposing:
n A $1 billion plan to create 15 “manufacturing institutes” that would bring together businesses, universities and the government. If Congress opposes the initiative, Obama plans to use his presidential powers to create three institutes on his own.
n Creation of an “energy security trust” that would use revenue from federal oil and gas leases to support development of clean energy technologies such as biofuels and natural gas
n Doubling of renewable energy in the U.S. from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020.
Tuesday night’s address marked Obama’s most expansive remarks on the economy since the November election. Since securing a second term, the president has focused more heavily on new domestic policy proposals, including immigration changes and preventing gun violence following the shooting in Newtown.
Obama also called on Congress to tackle the threat of climate change, another issue that eluded him in his first term. The president pledged to work with lawmakers to seek bipartisan solutions but said if Capitol Hill doesn’t act, he’ll order his Cabinet to seek steps he can take using his presidential powers.
Taking a swipe at those who question the threat of global warming, Obama said, “We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
Obama also called on Congress to pass legislation giving the government more power to combat the rapidly growing threat of cyberattacks. And, as a down payment on that, the president announced that he has signed an executive order to fight electronic espionage through the development of voluntary standards to protect networks and computer systems that run critical infrastructure.