PRESIDENT Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan and take steps to boost the fragile U.S. economy as he delivered a closely watched State of the Union address laying out his priorities for the year and for his newly begun second term in office.
The hour-long speech before a joint session of Congress’ two chambers on Tuesday night was dominated by domestic issues, as Obama challenged deeply divided lawmakers to find compromises that would boost job creation and strengthen America’s middle class. He conceded America’s economic revival is an “unfinished task.”
His focus on jobs and growth underscored the degree to which he is still hampered by the economy, with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, even as he pursues a bolder agenda including overhauling immigration laws, enacting stricter gun-control measures and tackling climate change.
Still, he said: “We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong.”
Foreign policy received less attention, but took on greater urgency as the speech came hours after North Korea detonated a nuclear device. Obama said “provocations” like the test will further isolate North Korea “as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
Obama also announced that the U.S. will begin talks with the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade agreement, “because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”
The annual address is one of the biggest events in Washington. It is broadcast during prime evening viewing hours by the major television networks, with Washington’s most powerful officials - lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, military leaders and Cabinet members - all in attendance and millions of Americans watching from home.
This year’s speech came at one of the strongest points in Obama’s presidency. He won re-election by a convincing margin, is generally popular, and opposition Republicans appear weakened and fractured.
Obama was kicking off three days of travel to rally support for the economic proposals he unveiled in his address. He will launch the effort Wednesday in Asheville, North Carolina, with a visit to Linamar Corp., a supplier of engine and transmission components that has expanded its manufacturing operations. He’ll make stops in Atlanta on Thursday and his hometown of Chicago on Friday.
But Republicans still control the House of Representatives and hold enough votes to stall legislation in the Senate, and tough fights loom on the budget and other top issues.
With the economy still the biggest concern of most Americans, Obama devoted less time to foreign policy this year. But his announcement on the withdrawal of 34,000 troops from Afghanistan - about half the force there - was a major development, even if it was highly anticipated. It puts the United States on pace to formally finish the protracted war by the end of 2014.
Obama also pledged to work with Russia to seek further reductions in nuclear arsenals. In addition to the European trade talks, Obama said he would work to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with the Asia-Pacific region.
He also said the United States “will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.”
In addressing climate change and gun control, Obama waded into territory where he will face stiff resistance from Republicans.
On climate change, Obama pledged to work with lawmakers to seek bipartisan solutions, but said if Congress doesn’t act, he’ll order his Cabinet to seek steps he can take using his presidential powers.
Obama said major storms, droughts and wildfires that have afflicted the United States can be considered “just a freak coincidence, or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.”
He implored Congress to at least hold votes on gun control measures, listing a series of high-profile shootings, such as the killings of children at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and the shootings at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
“The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” he said, drawing a standing ovation from Democratic lawmakers and supporters in the gallery in the most boisterous moment of the night. Obama added that no measures would prevent every act of gun violence. “But we were never sent here to be perfect. “
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 (1.6 kilometers) from the president’s home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.
Obama’s push for overhauling immigration laws has broader appeal. It is one of the few major issues on which badly divided Republicans and Democrats can find common ground. Republicans have long opposed relaxing immigration laws, but are reconsidering their positions as they try to appeal to Hispanics, a growing part of the U.S. electorate that has overwhelmingly favored Democrats.
A bipartisan group of negotiators in the Senate is working to craft legislation embracing Obama’s call for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants but making such a path contingent on first securing the border, a linkage Obama has not supported.
But there’s no guarantee the Senate bipartisan plan will find favor with the full Senate or the House. The first test may come Wednesday morning when the Senate Judiciary Committee opens its hearings on a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Earlier Tuesday, in a meeting with television correspondents and anchors, House Speaker John Boehner said immigration is about the only item on Obama’s list that has a chance of passing this year. He said the president is more interested in getting a Democratic majority in both chambers next year and said he doesn’t believe Obama “has the guts” to take on liberals in his party over spending cuts.
One of the leading Republican voices for immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio, was tapped to deliver the official Republican response. Rubio, a 41-year-old Cuban-American, is one of the party’s brightest stars and a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
Rubio accused Obama of opposing the free-enterprise system. He said Obama’s solution “to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Republicans are united in their opposition to Obama’s proposals for more spending at a time of huge deficits. Obama said his proposals to increase spending on manufacturing, infrastructure and clean-energy technologies would be fully paid for, though he did not specify how he would offset the cost of his proposals.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” Obama said.
He called for increased spending to fix roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to reach every American 4-year-old.
He also urged lawmakers to end a cycle of partisan budget fights that has repeatedly put the United States on the brink of a government shutdown, default or other crises.
“Americans don’t expect government to solve every problem,” he said. “They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.”
Obama addressed relatively briefly the looming fiscal crises confronting the nation - the deep automatic spending cuts or “sequester” set to take effect March 1, followed by the government running out of money to fund federal agencies on March 27. The president made clear he will continue to press for the rich to pay more in taxes, a position Republicans have rejected.
Republicans, meanwhile, made clear they are in little mood to cooperate.
“We are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester, and he failed to offer the cuts needed to replace it,” Boehner said in a statement. He said the president “appears to have chosen a go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda.”