WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Tuesday wagered his second term on an ambitious bid to strengthen America at home by reigniting its economic engine, cutting gun killings and fixing a broken immigration system.
Focusing his State of the Union address squarely on domestic priorities, Obama dealt in passing with churning foreign policy crises, including North Korea’s new nuclear test and Iran’s unsolved atomic brinkmanship.
And as he ends an era of draining land wars abroad, Obama announced plans to halve U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, though he vowed the global pursuit of terrorist suspects would go on.
Praising American steadfastness during testing economic times, Obama grasped for a note of optimism, while vowing to restore the middle class.
“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, in a speech punctuated by 68 ovations, delivered at the House of Representatives in Washington.
The address, before a huge national audience, was Obama’s best chance to sell his second-term plans in a bitterly divided nation and to stave off the domestic lame-duck status that has been the bane of second term presidents.
Divided Washington must fix its gaping budget deficit, Obama told lawmakers, describing billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts due to crash into the economy on March 1 as “a really bad idea.”
He slammed Republican ideas to adjust retirement benefits and health care for seniors as “even worse.”
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said, seeking to turn promises of a more equitable economy made in his re-election campaign into a reality.
Obama’s message was unapologetically tailored to a domestic U.S. audience, as he insisted that government investment must bankroll jobs growth.
“He will be about revitalizing the middle class and (easing) a sense of insecurity that has swept through much of the nation,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
But Republicans wasted no time in trying to thwart Obama’s plans.
“President Obama? He believes . . . that the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough,” one of the GOP’s rising stars, Sen. Marco Rubio, said in the Republican response to Obama’s speech. “As you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Obama was at his most passionate when making the case for measures to stem gun violence, following the shooting massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” he said, drawing lawmakers to their feet in an emotional tribute to victims of gun violence. “These proposals deserve a vote.”
Looking on in the House gallery with first lady Michelle Obama were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager gunned down in a random shooting not far from the president’s Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
Obama also announced the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
“This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he said.
In a brief diversion abroad, Obama said North Korea’s Tuesday nuclear test would only further its isolation, and promised to stand by Asian allies, strengthen missile defense and lead the world in a firm response.
Obama said “Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution” to a nuclear showdown, ahead of new talks with world powers this month.
Arguing that al-Qaida was a “shadow” of its former self, Obama pledged to help nations such as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, while helping allies such as France fight extremists in Mali.
Breaking new ground, Obama announced the start of formal talks between the United States and the European Union on a trans-Atlantic free-trade pact.
Despite criticism that he ignored the slaughter of nearly 70,000 people in Syria, Obama vowed to keep up pressure on the regime of President Bashar Assad and said he would stand firm in defense of Israel, which he will visit next month.
He tried to shame Congress into action on climate change. “We can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late,” Obama said.
Domestically, Obama also said he wanted a bill to reform the broken immigration system to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship within months.