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Emboldened Obama vows to ‘reignite’ middle class

Obama presented an ambitious, progressive second-term agenda in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, arguing for bold action to boost the middle class. The president also issued an impassioned call for Congress to enact gun control reform.


In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, US President Barack Obama on Tuesday night presented an ambitious second-term agenda, calling on a divided Congress to push forward on legislative priorities like job creation, gun control and immigration reform.

Buoyed by his victory in November, a frequently smiling president vowed to “reignite” a “rising, thriving middle class” with a higher minimum wage, greater investment in infrastructure, education, and clean energy, and deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax increases.

Obama tackles US economy in State of the Union

The aim of the speech, delivered before both chambers of Congress, seemed to be twofold: to follow up his unapologetically progressive second inaugural address with what political scientist Thomas Mann of left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution described as another “powerful case for the critical role of government”; and, as Mann said, “to make it even more difficult for [Republicans] to hold to their…oppositional strategy”.

Focus on jobs and poverty

Echoing the economic message that helped Obama defeat Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the president said: “It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many and not just the few”.

Noting that “we have cleared away the rubble of crisis”, Obama went on to argue for bold federal action to alleviate poverty by raising the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $9 by the end of 2015. “In the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty,” he said.

The president proposed new investments in math and science programmes to better equip high school students for the 21st century job market, as well as a $50-billion infrastructure initiative to repair the American roads, bridges, and railways in most dire need.

Acknowledging the impending fight with Republicans over the budget, Obama said that he was determined to reduce the deficit, but only through a “balanced” approach that combined spending cuts with tax rises – including the ending of tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans.

“Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” he said, in a clear dig at the opposition.

Environment and immigration

Advocates for stronger environmental policies, immigration reform and gun control were listening carefully to Tuesday’s speech, and Obama dutifully, at times passionately, addressed each issue.

Though he did not propose a cap on carbon emissions, the president vowed to boost the fuel efficiency of vehicles and to use oil and gas revenue to fund research into new clean energy policies. He also wielded the possibility of executive orders -- action taken without Congressional approval – to fight climate change.

“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations….I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” he said.

On immigration, Obama noted that reform was underway to provide “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship” for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Sources close to the president say that an immigration overhaul is one of the things Obama is most impatient check off his list, and that eagerness was on display Tuesday night. “Bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill,” he said. “Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

Gun victims 'deserve a vote'

But the president saved his most emotionally charged words for the issue of gun control, with which he chose to conclude his speech. “This is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence,” he said. “But this time is different.”

Gesturing toward the parents of a Chicago teen recently killed in gang violence, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (survivor of a shooting in 2011 in Arizona), and a policeman wounded at a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last summer, Obama repeated: “They deserve a vote”.

Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden and several Democratic senators, has made the tightening of gun laws one of his legislative priorities in the wake of the Newtown primary school shootings last December.

In January, the president issued a series of executive orders strengthening existing gun laws. He has also pressed Congress to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, limit high-capacity ammunition magazines, and require criminal background checks for all gun sales -- even those by private sellers who today exempt from those procedures.

The drone controversy

Foreign policy also played a fairly prominent role in the speech, suggesting that Obama’s domestic to-do list may be disrupted by forces beyond US borders.

He announced the withdrawal of 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by February of next year -- a move that would cut in half the US military presence there – and reiterated the goal of completely transferring security responsibilities to Afghans.

And having recently come under fire for his aggressive counterterrorism programme, particularly the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, Obama said he would work to provide greater transparency and tighter monitoring of such operations.

“I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” the president said.

Following Obama’s address, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida delivered his party’s official rebuttal. Portraying the president as an irresponsible tax-and-spend liberal, Rubio said: “Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity. But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”

The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio is often praised as a young and charismatic force in the Republican party, and has been mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2016. The fact that he was selected to speak on Tuesday suggests the Republicans’ eagerness to bolster their popularity among the growing Latino electorate -- 71% of whom voted for Obama in November.

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