WASHINGTON — President Obama urged a divided Congress in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night to approve new policies to fix a slow-moving economy, overhaul the nation’s immigration system, and tighten gun laws.
Seeking to capitalize on momentum from his reelection, Obama built upon the liberal themes of last month’s inaugural address to call for changes that he said would benefit a struggling middle class, from improving educational opportunities, to rejuvenating the job market, to increasing the minimum wage.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” Obama said. “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.”
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama added.
Obama focused a significant portion of his speech on foreign affairs, announcing a plan to withdraw 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan over the next year, removing about half of the troops there now and continuing toward his goal of bringing home all combat forces and turning over responsibility to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Obama also condemned North Korea’s nuclear test, which was announced this week and has set US allies in Asia on edge.
“Provocations of the sort we saw [Monday] night will only isolate them further, 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 said.
Much of Obama’s focus — as it has been from the first days of his presidency — was on improving the economy by making conditions better for the middle class, something he referred to several times as “our unfinished task.”
He proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2015, up from the current rate of $7.25, which it has been since 2009. Some states set higher levels; the minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8 an hour, among the nation’s highest.
Obama also called for improving preschool education throughout the country — using federal money as an incentive for states to make changes — and he argued that investing in children at a young age can prevent crime, homelessness, and other problems later in life.
“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool,” he said. “And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”
Obama called for more investments in manufacturing, and he proposed a “Fix-It-First” program that would begin putting people to work on $50 billion in infrastructure projects such as fixing 70,000 structurally deficient bridges.
The audience in the House chamber frequently applauded and rose to their feet, sometimes giving the room a bipartisan feel, even if the ovations from Democrats often were more enthusiastic.
At the mention of raising the minimum wage, Democrats rose while Republicans sat. When Obama talked of overhauling immigration, a number of Senate Republicans applauded while GOP members of the House remained silent.
Some of the proposals are almost certain to meet resistance from Republicans calling for less government spending, not more.
In the formal Republican response, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Obama for proposing tax increases.
“The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families,” Rubio said. “It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So, Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Obama did not specify all of the costs to his plans during the speech, and White House aides declined to specify them ahead of time. But White House officials said that coupled with other cuts — and changes to the tax code that will increase government revenue — the president’s plans will reduce the deficit, not add to it.
“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.”
Obama said he would expand an initiative to revitalize the American manufacturing sector by making more federal investments. Building on a pilot program in Youngstown, Ohio — which used $30 million in federal funding and $40 million from a private industry consortium — Obama said he would launch three new “innovation institutes” this year.
Obama also announced that he was forming a nonpartisan commission to examine voting rights issues in America.
The commission, he said, would be overseen by top attorneys for his campaign and his former Republican rival, Mitt Romney. “When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama said.
Obama’s speech came at a critical time in his second term, as he seeks to steer a divided Congress to his priorities in the two years before attention begins to turn toward who will succeed him in the White House.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” Obama said, referring a series of threatened government shutdowns and budget sequesters that would force harsh budget cuts.
Obama implored Congress to help address global climate change, saying new legislation was needed.
But, he added, if they would not act, he would. He set a new goal of cutting energy consumption in half by 2030, and he said he would aim to double renewable energy production by 2020.
Obama also announced a proposal that would divert some oil and gas revenues into a new Energy Security Trust that would be used to fund research and technology aimed at reducing the use of oil.
Just before the speech, television network coverage was focused on a dramatic manhunt in California instead of the usual pre-speech punditry. Then coverage switched to the House chamber just before Obama entered.
In one of the most emotional moments of the speech, Obama spoke about victims of gun violence, and urged Congress, following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., to pass new gun control legislation.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” Obama said, as attention shifted to the former congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011 in her Arizona district and was in the House chamber. “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.”
A chorus of Democratic congressman started chanting, “Vote,” over the clapping.
Several dozen members of Congress gave tickets to family members of gun violence victims, in an attempt to create momentum for new gun control legislation.
Three Massachusetts mothers whose sons were fatally shot were slated tobe the guests of Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives John Tierney of Salem and Edward J. Markey of Malden.
Warren’s guest, Kim Odom, was a Dorchester pastor whose 13-year-old son, Steven, was fatally shot in 2007. She is a vocal gun control advocate and sits on the board of Mothers for Justice and Equality, a Boston-based organization seeking to end neighborhood violence. Tierney invited Lynnette Alameddine, a Saugus mother whose 20-year-old son, Ross, was slain in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
Markey invited another Massachusetts mother, Ann Marie Crowell, whose 12-year-old son, Brian, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve in 1997.
Obama plans to hold a series of campaign-style events to promote his proposals. He is slated to travel Wednesday to auto parts plant in Asheville, N. C., visit an early childhood education facility in Decatur, Ga., on Thursday, and then travel to Chicago to talk about gun violence on Friday.