President Barack Obama smiles during a standing ovation at the start of his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill, Feb. 12, 2013. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged Congress to prevent looming cuts to military and domestic programs scheduled to take place on March 1. Obama called the cuts—known in Washington as the sequester—a “really bad idea” that would imperil the nation’s shaky economic recovery, but he said trimming popular social programs like Medicare would be worse and would disproportionately hurt the middle class.
In his first State of the Union address since being re-elected in November, Obama also made an emotional plea for new gun-safety measures, saying the victims of gun violence—like the residents of Newtown, Conn., where 26 people died in a mass shooting in December—“deserve a vote” on legislation to ban assault weapons and large ammunition magazines.
"What I've said tonight matters little if we don't come together to protect our most precious resource, our children," Obama said.
Obama spoke on Capitol Hill before a a bitterly divided Congress, pitching legislative proposals that have no chance of enactment without some support from the Republicans who control the House and wage filibusters in the Senate. He gave a nod to the concerns of the GOP, vowing that none of his policy proposals would deepen the deficit.
"It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," Obama said.
Still, the speech largely reflected the priorities of a Democratic president returned to office by a convincing margin and who will not face re-election again.
Obama vowed a broad commitment to economic development and job creation, particularly in manufacturing and clean energy. After an inaugural address last month noteworthy for broad themes over substance and for its nod to issues like gay marriage, Obama used Tuesday night's speech to return to the economy, which polls show remains the top concern for most Americans.
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs—that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said. “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 sounded themes popular with his Democratic base, such as passing the Violence Against Women Act, improving voting rights and seeking “market-based solutions” for combating climate change, which he linked to recent weather catastrophes like Superstorm Sandy. He also renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform, insisting a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. must be part of "any real reform."
Obama’s focus on the impending sequester early in his remarks suggested a growing concern that the across-the-board spending cuts could bring potential devastation to many segments of the economy. Last week, he urged Congress to pass a package of temporary spending cuts and revenue increases to prevent the sequester from being triggered. Republican lawmakers have resisted, saying any temporary plan must be tied to changes in the tax code and reforms to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Obama on Tuesday soundly rejected that approach while hinting he would be open to some discussion of changes that might strengthen the two programs.
“Those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms—otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations,” Obama said. “But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful.”
Obama outlined several other initiatives he said would help boost the middle class, including:
—Raise the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour.
—Help make college education more affordable to determine which colleges should receive certain types of aid. He said his administration would release a college scorecard to help families figure out which schools offered the best value.
—Work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child.
—Work with local leaders in 20 economically challenged towns to rebuild vacant homes and give tax credits to companies that hire workers in those places.
The president touched briefly on foreign policy, announcing he would draw down 34,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next year—about half the force currently deployed there. He denounced North Korea's recent nuclear test, insisting such provocations "will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
Obama's discussion of his gun-control proposals came near the end of his address, when he focused attention on the parents, relatives and victims of recent violence, including some two dozen seated in the chamber. The included former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously wounded in a mass shooting two years ago, and the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago girl who was shot and killed a week after performing at Obama's inauguration.
"If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote," Obama implored Congress.