President Obama used his State of the Union Address on Tuesday to sell his plan to bolster a still fragile economy, vowing his second term agenda will center on creating middle-class jobs.
He also repeated his calls for Congress to back his plan for an overhaul of the country's immigration laws and called on lawmakers to vote on even the most divisive aspects of his plan to tighten rules regulating gun ownership, arguing that elected officials owed at least that much to victims of mass shootings from Virginia Tech to the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
The president also paused to note the death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was gunned down just about a mile from his Chicago home days after she participated in Obama's inauguration festivities in Washington. Her parents were among those in the audience.
"They deserve a simple vote," Obama said.
In outlining his ambitions for a second term, Obama implicitly acknowledged that his progress, or lack thereof, in lowering the jobless rate and bolstering economic growth will loom large over his legacy.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class," he said.
The president's remarks were in sharp contrast with his second inaugural address last month that focused heavily on social issues and was criticized by some on the political right as overly partisan.
Obama noted, under his watch, the U.S. auto industry has been resurrected and a U.S. economy that was mired in recession when he came into office is on firm ground. But he acknowledged that the country has much work to do when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%.
"Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?" Obama said.
Even as he battles Congress on spending cuts to reduce the nation's $16.5 trillion deficit, Obama made the case for new government spending -- that he said won't raise the deficit a "single dime" -- to build an educated populace and a fairer tax structure.
He proposed hiking the minimum wage to $9 per hour, creating new government-private sector partnerships in manufacturing hubs in areas hurt by globalization, and establishing a program to repair the country's tattered infrastructure.
Obama also called for providing free preschool to children from low- and moderate-income families.
He warned Congress to head off the first wave of $1.2 trillion in automatic defense and discretionary domestic cuts set to be triggered next month, by passing a debt reduction plan that includes spending cuts and new tax revenue to be derived by closing loopholes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising GOP star who delivered the Republican response to the president's speech, said Obama should "abandon his obsession with raising taxes."
"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," Rubio said.
On foreign policy, Obama announced plans to cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by 34,000 over the next 12 months, halving the number of American troops on the ground as he prepares to end the long war by the end of 2014.
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