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, noting we "can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful."
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 was seeking 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, speaking before a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.
Noting that a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns only $14,500 a year, Obama pushed for an increase of the federal minimum to $9 a hour. He also called on Congress to tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, something his 2012 Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, agreed with.
"Working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher," Obama said. "This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead."
Despite a rousing call to combat climate change in his Inaugural Address, Obama steered clear of any mention of carbon emissions. Instead, he pledged to double the amount of renewable energy generated from wind and solar sources by 2020 and called for the creation of an energy security trust that would finance clean energy research with oil and gas revenues from federal lands.
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 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."
Despite the pressing foreign policy concerns, jobs and growth dominated Obama's prime-time address, underscoring the degree to which the economy remains a vulnerability for the president and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.
Standing in Obama's way 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 while Americans don't expect Washington to solve every problem, "they do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."
President Obama also emphasized background checks for gun buyers, saying that overwhelming majorities of Americans favor the proposal as a way to keep firearms from criminals.
"Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals," Obama said, noting that police chiefs tired of being outfunned are seeking restrictions on "weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines."
The president proposed all those ideas after the December killings of 20 first-graders in Connecticut. But expanded background checks is the only one he described as having vast support — a description that matches public polling and reflects congressional sentiment too.
Other specific proposals for his second term included a call for increased federal spending to fix the nation's roads and bridges and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old.