In the annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama dared Republicans to help build a "thriving middle class," reform immigration and curb gun crime.
Obama, wagering political chips he won in November's election, told Americans he will halve the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan within a year and gave his first on camera response to North Korea's nuclear test.
“We can say with confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” Obama began his address, after noting that more jobs have been added and that "our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protections.”
At the same time, he said, “We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and daily determination have not yet been rewarded.
“Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages & incomes have barely budged.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class," said Obama.
"Now we need to finish the job. And the question is, how?" he said, adding, “We can’t ask working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest. We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling.
"We should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes," said the President.
He clarified that “nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
“A year and a half ago, I put forward an American Jobs Act that independent economists said would create more than one million new jobs. I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda, and I urge this Congress to pass the rest.”
Obama announced the opening of three new manufacturing hubs, such as the one opened last year in Youngstown, Ohio, in order to create jobs.
He called on Congress to do more to combat climate change and said, “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. 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 proposed a “Fix-It-First” program to fix the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.
“Part of our rebuilding effort must also involve our housing sector,” said Obama. “Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again.
“But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That’s holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it. Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill.”
He also spoke of education, proposing working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.
The issue of gun control also came up in the speech, with Obama saying, “Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
On defense issues, Obama promised “that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
He added, “Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”
He also addressed Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, saying, “America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night 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.
“Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”
Obama mentioned Israel only briefly, in a short statement on the Middle East.
“We will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy,” he said. “The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.”