From jobs to gun violence, Obama pushes ambitious second-term agenda

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The State of the Union in 2

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama concedes that economic revival is 'an unfinished task' but says America is on the right track.


President Barack Obama urged a divided Congress and the rest of America on Tuesday night to back his sweeping agenda to use more government money to create jobs and strengthen the middle class.

Laying out his ambitious plans for the final four years of his presidency, Obama conceded there's still much to do to re-energize the economy but said the nation is on the right course.

"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."

Obama also implored Congress to pass laws to reduce gun violence and boost the minimum wage, and promised to bring home 34,000 more U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next year.

In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Obama conceded economic revival is an "unfinished task."

"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.

In specific proposals for his second term, Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation's roads and bridges; for raising the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $9 an hour and pegging it to inflation; and for expansion of early education to every 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from skeptical Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit "by a single dime."

In the Republican response to Obama's address, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida directly rebutted the president, saying his solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."

Rubio 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."

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 set off a nuclear bomb 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 "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 raising 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.

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.

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The commander-in-chief rattled off a list of victims of gun violence: Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago teen shot to death not far from Obama's Chicago home; former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a shooting rampage two years ago in Tucson, Ariz.; and families in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.

He urged Congress to pass gun laws like comprehensive background checks to make it harder for criminals to get weapons.

"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 said.

Then, his voice rising in a crescendo, Obama added:

"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

"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."

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Among the other initiatives Obama is proposing:

— 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.

— 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

— 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 Newtown shooting.

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 Congress 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."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.      


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