President Obama outlined plans Tuesday to revive American prosperity by rebuilding "a thriving middle class," calling it the "true engine of America's economic growth" during his annual State of the Union Address.
Growing the economy and creating good middle-class jobs "must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Obama told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience.
While devoting most of his speech to jobs and the economy, Obama also announced plans to pull 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next year, reducing the American presence by about half as part of a planned overall withdrawal. "By the end of next year," Obama said, "our war in Afghanistan will be over."
The president also condemned the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and pledged to work with Russia to continue reducing American and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the hour-long speech, Obama called on Congress to vote on gun control proposals in order to honor "Americans whose lives have been torn apart" by mass violence. "They deserve a vote," Obama said.
In a litany of economic proposals, Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage - from $7.25 to $9 per hour - as well as new plans to speed up infrastructure projects, promote manufacturing, improve science and math education and develop alternative sources of energy.
Throughout his speech, Obama tied the economy to other aspects of his legislative agenda, including proposals for a major overhaul of the immigration system, legislation to combat gun violence, and programs to address climate change.
Obama urged members of Congress - especially Republicans -- to avoid the "sequester," $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1. The president said these "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts" would jeopardize military readiness and "devastate priorities" like education, energy, and medical research.
Instead, he urged a "balanced" plan to reduce the nation's $16 trillion-plus debt with both spending cuts and new tax revenues derived from closing loopholes and ending certain deductions.
The State of the Union also featured a new plan to protect the nation's infrastructure from cyber attacks and the creation of an election reform commission to deal with challenges such as long lines at polling places and voter registration problems.
Congressional Republicans said Obama's plans rely too much on government and not enough on the market to rebuild the middle class. In the formal Republican response to the State of the Union, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. - a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016 - said that past presidents from both parties "have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity."
"But President Obama?" Rubio said. "He believes it's the cause of our problems."
Republicans also said that Obama's call for new tax revenues amounts to a tax hike that will further slow the economy, and that the debt should be reduced by spending cuts alone. They said Obama got a tax increase - in the form of higher income tax rates - as part of the "fiscal cliff" deal reached last month.
"So we're done with the tax part of the equation," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. before Obama's speech.
In the address, Obama said that Social Security and Medicare recipients should bear the brunt of debt reduction, and that "the wealthiest and most powerful" should contribute as well. He also pledged to work with Republicans to make "modest" changes to entitlement programs and to simplify the tax system.
Obama said that while Americans don't expect government to solve all the nation's problems, they do expect the parties to work together. Seeking to pressure Republicans, he urged Congress to avoid past disputes over the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and the budget that damaged the nation's credit rating and threatened to shut down the government.
"The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to another," Obama said.
The president spoke amid reports that the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9% in January, and that the overall economy contracted in the last quarter of 2012.
Describing his plans for the middle class, Obama said lawmakers should ask themselves three questions: "How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills they need to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
Obama also said his proposed new programs are paid for, and will not increase budget deficits by "one dime."
Among his proposals: A "fix-it first" program to speed up certain infrastructure projects, and more pre-school for children from low- and moderate-income families.
The president also called for three new "Manufacturing Innovation Institutes," government-business partnerships seeking to develop new technologies; a "Master Teacher Corps" to improve math and science education, and an "Energy Security Trust" with the goal of moving cars and trucks off oil.
He renewed previous calls for major legislation, including his immigration overhaul plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants, an item some Republicans have criticized as amnesty for lawbreakers.
The president also said Congress needs to confront climate change, "for the sake of our children and our future." One solution, he said, is developing "clean energy" legislation.
And Obama called on congressional votes on proposals for "universal background checks," a renewal of the assault weapons ban and restrictions on the sizes of ammunition magazines.
Guns were a primary issue for many in the audience in the U.S House chamber. Both the White House and members of Congress invited families and friends who have endured the trauma of shootings.
The guest list for first lady Michelle Obama included the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old from Chicago who was shot in the back and killed last month in an apparent act of gang violence just a mile away from the Obamas' house.
The first lady also welcomed a teacher from the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults died in a Dec. 14 shooting. Members of Congress wore green ribbons in honor of the Newtown victims.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote" on gun legislation. Obama said, a mantra he echoed for other communities "ripped open by gun violence."
Other White House guests - invited to personalize various aspects of the president's agenda - included a police officer wounded in a mass shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee; members of the military; and business, education and health care professionals.
Some congressional Republicans also brought guests. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, invited former rock-and-roller Ted Nugent, an outspoken critic of gun control who said last year he would wind up "dead or in jail" if Obama won re-election.
During a discussion of foreign affairs on foreign affairs, Obama made an apparent reference to his drone program in pledging to work with Congress to insure that "our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and our systems of checks and balances."
And he again pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make a nuclear weapon.
In announcing his visit to the Middle East next month, Obama pledged to help with Egypt's painful transition to democracy, and to pressure the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The millions of television viewers included members of Organizing for America, the political action group formed by Obama 2012 campaign officials. OFA sponsored about 1,200 State of the Union "watch parties" across the country.
Obama made a conference call to these gatherings immediately after the speech, urging them to lobby Congress on behalf of his agenda. Said the president: "Figure out how you guys are going to stay organized."