WASHINGTON — Uncompromising and politically emboldened, President Obama on Tuesday urged a deeply divided Congress 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 hour-long address to a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.
Yet with unemployment still persistently high and consumer confidence on the decline, 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 his newest steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American military members withdrawing from Afghanistan within the next 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.
Highlights of the president’s State of the Union address
- Jobs: Partner with businesses and communities to invest in American-made technologies through a network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, three of which Obama said he will create by executive order. Eliminate tax breaks that encourage companies to move jobs outside the U.S., and rewrite the tax code.
- Housing: Spend $15 billion to help communities awash in foreclosed and vacant properties rebuild while creating construction jobs.
- Minimum wage: Increase the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, to $9 in stages by the end of 2015, and allow for automatic increases to keep pace with inflation. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supported the idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
- Gun control: Ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, require background checks for all firearms purchases and increase access to mental health services.
- Afghanistan: Withdraw 34,000 U.S. military forces, just under half the 66,000 troops still there, within a year.
- Immigration: Continue to tighten the border, crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, establish a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without, and streamline the immigration system for families, workers and businesses.
- Women: Renew the Violence Against Women Act to help protect victims of domestic violence and help law enforcement investigate and prosecute sexual assaults. The Senate voted Tuesday to renew the law; Obama called on the House to quickly send him a bill.
- Early childhood education: Provide access to a high-quality preschool for all children from families with low or moderate incomes.
- Trade: Begin talks on a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union to promote the exchange of goods across the Atlantic.
- Federal budget: Continue to work toward the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction and stabilizing the debt as a percentage of the economy, both over 10 years.
- Infrastructure: Spend $50 billion on a “Fix It First” program for urgent repairs to roads, bridges and railways.
- Climate change: Make permanent and refundable a tax credit for renewable energy to help double the production from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020. Help states cut energy waste and increase efficiency through a competitive grant program modeled after a similar program for education. Direct Cabinet secretaries to identify additional executive steps to deal with climate change.
- Education: Launch a competition to help redesign and modernize high schools, and create a corps of 10,000 of the nation’s brightest science and math teachers to improve instruction in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.