President Barack Obama delivered an ambitious State of the Union speech Tuesday that began with a sweeping plan to "reignite" the American middle class and culminated with a rousing call for new restrictions on gun ownership.
His agenda faces stiff opposition from his Republican opponents in Congress. But the president, trying to sustain the momentum from his re-election victory and an unabashedly progressive inauguration address, threw the gantlet at their feet.
Appearing before a joint session of Congress, Obama started with a challenge to enact a series of tax reforms, spending cuts and job-building government investments that he said wouldn't raise the federal deficit.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next," Obama said. "Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another."
Obama's economic proposals included:
- Cutting Medicare subsidies to drug companies
- Raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 and linking it to increases in the cost of living
- Creating a federal program to fix deteriorating bridges, ports, pipelines and schools
- Making "high-quality" pre-school available to all children
- Rewarding schools that emphasize science, technology, engineering and math
- Withholding federal aid to colleges that don't keep tuition costs down
"Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," Obama said. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth. "
The speech, Obama's fifth State of the Union, was watched by millions of people, though television networks were focused in the hours before and after the address on developments in a manhunt in southern California for a fired LAPD officer suspected of revenge slayings.
Obama's speech marked his next significant step in pursuing his second term agenda -- and outlining what he hopes to be his political legacy.
As in the case of all modern-era second-term presidents, Obama has relatively little time to spend his political capital toward something broad and meaningful. So he put together a speech that could be seen as a sequel to his remarks last month at his second inauguration, when he aimed big with a call for stricter gun control, the right for gays to marry, a better response to climate change, and expanded rights for immigrants.
But Obama, still struggling to meet the lofty expectations of his 2008 election, spent most of his speech on the fitful economic recovery, framing his arguments by appealing to the American ideal of equal opportunity for all.
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Obama said.
"Every day," he continued, "we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: 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?"
He started with a list of examples he said proved America's progress: the return of troops from war, the creation of six million new jobs, an uptick in the purchases of domestic automobiles, a decline in the purchase of foreign oil, a "healing" housing market and a "rebounding" stock market.
“Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," Obama said.
But that progress, he said, was tempered by the reality that "millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded."
He added: "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."
Obama described his plan as "a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share."
It will begin, he said, with reforming Medicare by cutting subsidies to drug companies and higher payments from wealthy senior citizens.
At the same time, Obama said, the tax code needs to be reformed, to eliminate tax loopholes and deductions "for the well-off and well-connected."
Virtually all of his economic proposals face a tough fight with Republicans in Congress. Republicans have already reluctantly agreed to increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending Bush-era tax rates for everyone else. But they will likely push back on Obama's latest plan. They say the president isn't serious enough about cutting spending.
In that context, Obama's speech could be viewed as a prelude to their upcoming battle over the budget as more than a trillion dollars in automatic spending cuts are scheduled to go into effect next month. The impact, Obama said, would be devastating.
"We can't just cut our way to prosperity," he said.
Obama appealed to both parties to seek compromise.
"I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform will not be easy," the president 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."
Obama saved his most emotional appeal until the near-end of his address, when he said that the December massacre of children in Newtown, Conn., had changed the debate over gun control. Obama and his allies in Congress have proposed bills that would ban certain types of weapons, or expand background checks. He challenged Congress to consider them all.
“If you want to vote no, that's your choice. 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.”
He invoked the case of Hadiya Pendleton, the 14-year-old Chicago girl shot and killed days after performing at Obama's Jan. 21 inauguration. Her parents attended the speech.
"They deserve a vote," Obama said.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he added, referring to the former Congresswoman debilitated by a January 2011 assassination attempt.
He continued: "The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -- they deserve a simple vote."
Obama pushed for other things that he hopes will establish his legacy long after he leaves office four years from now. He urged Congress to pass legislation that would allow many immigrants in the country illegally to become citizens. He proposed new research into dealing with climate change.
Obama announced that 34,000 troops would leave Afghanistan in the next year, reducing the total U.S. military presence there by half, on course for a full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
And he promised to seek treaties to reduce the number of nuclear weapons around the world. That message included a repudiation of North Korea's test this week of a nuclear device.
The State of the Union was followed by a rebuttal from Republican freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising GOP star who could run for president in 2016. He accused Obama of hurting the middle class with tax increases and deficit spending.
"I hope the president will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy," Rubio said.
Obama is scheduled spend the next few days on the road, talking elements of his speech in campaign-style stops in North Carolina, Georgia and Chicago.