WASHINGTON (AP) — Uncompromising and politically emboldened, President Barack Obama urged a deeply divided Congress last night to embrace his plans to use government money to create jobs and strengthen the nation's middle class. He declared Republican ideas for reducing the deficit "even worse" than the unpalatable deals Washington had to stomach during his first term.
In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Obama conceded economic revival is an "unfinished task," but he claimed clear progress and said he prepared to build on it as he embarks on four more years in office.
"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong," Obama said in an hour-long address to a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.
Yet with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, the economy remains a vulnerability for Obama and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.
Obama also announced new steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year. And he had a sharp rebuke for North Korea, which launched a nuclear test just hours before his remarks, saying, "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further."
Third District Congresswoman Niki Tsongas said she was disappointed that the president's address did not acknowledge the plight of women and girls of Afghanistan.
"To touch upon it in his speech would have reflected a commitment," she said in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune.
In a prepared statement after the speech, she said that galvanize the resources provided to our servicemembers
"Veterans’ services and support, including quality health and employment services, will ensure that all those who’ve served on our behalf are able to successfully transition from active duty to life on the home front," she said. "Recent developments in the military, such as lifting the ban on women in combat, reflect a much needed military culture change that will lead to a more diverse, skilled and strengthened fighting force.
"The U.S. must also be cognizant of how we will ensure that the women of Afghanistan continue to have a seat at the table and that the nascent gains in gender equality we have begun to see in that country are not lost. One of the most striking observations I made during my last trip to Afghanistan, was that if this country is to become more stable and secure, women must be included in Afghan society and government."
In specific proposals for shoring up the economy in his second term, an assertive Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation's roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit "by a single dime" although he didn't explain how he would pay for his programs or how much they would cost.
In the Republican response to Obama's address, rising GOP star Marco Rubio of Florida came right back at the president, saying his solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."
Sen. Rubio, in prepared remarks, said presidents of both parties have recognized that the free enterprise system brings middle-class prosperity.
"But President Obama?" Rubio said. "He believes it's the cause of our problems."
Still, throughout the House chamber there were symbolic displays of bipartisanship. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrived early and sat with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., just returned in January nearly a year after suffering a debilitating stroke. As a captain in the National Guard, Duckworth lost both her legs while serving in Iraq in 2004.
A few aisles away, the top two tax writers in Congress, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sat together.
But as a sign that divisions still remain, three of the most conservative Supreme Court justices skipped Obama's speech. Six of the nine attended. Missing were Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Jobs and growth dominated Obama's address. Many elements of his economic blueprint were repacked proposals from his first term that failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
The president implored lawmakers to break through partisan logjams, asserting that "the greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."
"Americans don't expect government to solve every problem," he said. "They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."
Yet Obama offered few signs of being willing to compromise himself, instead doubling down on his calls to create jobs by spending more government money and insisting that lawmakers pay down the deficit through a combination of targeted spending cuts and tax increases.
Tsongas thought that the President outlined a clear path forward for the nation, shaped by both parties.
"Our nation’s prosperity rests in the hands of bipartisan, commonsense solutions that expand the rights of all people, strengthen our national security and support a thriving middle class," she said.
“By leveraging the highly skilled workforce, advanced technological companies and institutions that are unique to our region, the Massachusetts Third District is well-positioned to put that plan into action," she said. "State-of-the art technology and education centers are showcasing our region’s bright minds and vast resources, and can be a model for America’s growth in cutting-edge industries."
Republicans are ardently opposed to Obama's calls for legislating more tax revenue to reduce the deficit and offset broad the automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — that are to take effect March 1. The president accused GOP lawmakers of shifting the cuts from defense to programs that would help the middle class and elderly, as well as those supporting education and job training.
"That idea is even worse," he said.
Numerous lawmakers wore green lapel ribbons in memory of those killed in the December shootings in Connecticut. Among those watching in the House gallery: the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed recently in a park just a mile from the president's home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.
“I also appreciated the President’s persistent and passionate focus on preventing gun violence, an issue that hit home for him and all Americans after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.," Tsongas said. "This conversation cannot become stagnant or bullied into silence by seemingly untouchable organizations."
On the economy, Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2007, and administration officials said the increase would strengthen purchasing power. The president also wants Congress to approve automatic increases in the wage to keep pace with inflation.
Looking for common ground anywhere he could find it, Obama framed his proposal to boost the minimum wage by pointing out that even his GOP presidential rival liked the idea. He said, "Here's an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."
Education also figures in Obama's plans to boost American competitiveness in the global economy. Under his proposal, the federal government would help states provide pre-school for all 4-year-olds. Officials did not provide a cost for the pre-school programs but said the government would provide financial incentives to help states.
Among the other initiatives Obama is proposing:
— A $1 billion plan to create 15 "manufacturing institutes" that would bring together businesses, universities and the government. If Congress opposes the initiative, Obama plans to use his presidential powers to create three institutes on his own.
— Creation of an "energy security trust" that would use revenue from federal oil and gas leases to support development of clean energy technologies such as biofuels and natural gas
— Doubling of renewable energy in the U.S. from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020.
“But we can’t just invent things here and let our global competitors make them overseas," Tsongas said. "By supporting our domestic manufacturing base, we create the potential for expansive job growth. As evidenced by numerous companies in the Third District, including New Balance, Century Box and Polartec, it is not only possible to retain domestic manufacturing jobs, but also that an opportunity exists to grow this sector of our economy that is now demanding highly skilled and highly educated workers."