US President Barack Obama challenged a divided Congress on Tuesday to raise the minimum wage and make government work for “the many” in a State of the Union speech focused on economic fairness for the middle class as the Democrat takes a more assertive tack in his second term.
Looking to use momentum from his re-election victory in November last year, Obama vowed to turn much of his attention toward economic troubles like the 7.9 percent unemployment rate, an issue that dogged his first four years as president.
While he offered few concessions to Republican demands for spending cuts, Obama backed higher taxes for the wealthy and a US$50 billion spending plan to create jobs by rebuilding degraded roads and bridges.
It was the second time in a few weeks that Obama has used a major occasion to show a new, bolder side, coming after his inaugural speech last month, when he offered a strong defense of gay rights and put climate change back on the agenda.
Obama on Tuesday outlined plans to withdraw 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan over the next year and called anew for action on immigration reform at home.
In the most emotional moment of the hour-long speech, Obama urged Congress to ban assault weapons and take other gun control measures. Victims of recent shootings like the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, looked on, some choking back tears.
However, the central emphasis of his speech was to “build new ladders of opportunity” for the middle class.
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few,” Obama told hundreds of lawmakers, Cabinet officials and dignitaries gathered before him in the well of the US House of Representatives.
Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress came in the midst of yet another bitter battle with Republicans over taxes and spending, and this tussle cast a heavy shadow over his appearance.
Even as Obama spoke, US House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, accused him of offering “little more than the same stimulus policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work.”
Boehner’s comments came in a statement that was issued while Obama was still delivering his address and the speaker was sitting behind him, at times scowling.
“The president had an opportunity to offer a solution tonight and he let it slip by,” Boehner said in his statement.
The clock is now ticking on Obama. He has about a year to get his legislative priorities enacted before Americans shift attention to next year’s congressional elections.
Obama reserved his toughest words to urge a resolution to a festering budget battle that will result in automatic, deep spending cuts known as “sequestration” at the end of the month unless a deal can be reached.
Americans, he said, do not expect government to solve every problem, “but they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromises where we can.”
Many of his proposals may face a difficult path getting through Congress. He proposed raising the US minimum wage for workers from US$7.25 to US$9 an hour.
He also backed a US$50 billion program to fund infrastructure rebuilding projects like fixing aging bridges, but many Republicans are adamantly against such stimulative government spending after Obama’s first-term US$787 billion stimulus did not lead to a dramatic reversal in the unemployment rate.
Saying the 12 hottest years on record have taken place in the past 15, Obama issued an ultimatum to Congress on climate change. He vowed to take action to confront climate change through presidential executive orders unless Congress enacts legislation.
US Senator Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star who could run for president in 2016, accused Obama of being too fond of big government.
“I hope the president will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy,” Rubio said in the formal Republican response to Obama’s speech.