President Barack Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and warned he’ll use executive powers to get his way on issues from climate change to manufacturing if Congress doesn’t act, laying out an assertive second-term agenda sure to provoke Republicans.
In the first State of the Union address since winning re- election, Obama proposed making preschool available to all 4- year-olds, negotiating a new trade agreement with the European Union and spending $50 billion on “urgent” infrastructure projects. He lauded steps by companies including Apple Inc. and Ford Motor Co. to bring jobs back to the U.S.
“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation,” Obama said in his hour-long speech delivered to a joint session of Congress.
Obama also promised to push hard for his proposals on immigration and on guns, pointing out members of the audience from Newtown, Connecticut, and other communities that have been scenes of mass shootings.
Obama spoke as he and congressional Republicans are at loggerheads in negotiations to head off $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to begin taking effect on March 1. He’s also in a political struggle over the government’s role in addressing economic inequality, a central theme of his re-election campaign and his inaugural address.
Obama’s call for a minimum wage is his first as president. While it was last increased in 2009, under his presidency, the increase came out of a 2007 law signed by President George W. Bush. Raising the hourly federal minimum wage to $9 from $7.25 by the end of 2015 would return it to its highest inflation- adjusted value since 1981, under President Ronald Reagan, according to a White House fact sheet.
The address signaled Obama’s plans to move quickly to use his political strength from last November’s re-election by challenging the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to schedule votes on his agenda. It also illustrated his decision to test the limits of his executive powers to push ahead on his priorities without the House or even the Democratic Senate majority.
Obama said his proposals wouldn’t add “a single dime” to the deficit. He repeated his demand that Republicans accept raising tax revenue along with spending cuts as part of any “balanced” approach to his goal of $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction over a decade.
Republicans rejected Obama’s assurances. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in the Republican response that more tax increases on the wealthy would slow economic growth and ultimately harm the economic prospects for all Americans.
“The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families,” Rubio said in the party’s response. “It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.”
Over the next few days, the president will travel for events in North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois aimed at promoting his agenda.
While most of the speech was about the budget, taxes and spending, Obama also highlighted two of the most politically contentious parts of his agenda: immigration and gun control.
The president summoned the suffering of the families of shooting victims to make the case against opponents’ efforts to obstruct gun control legislation. Referring to more than two dozen relatives the White House had invited to the chamber to view the speech, he implored the lawmakers: “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” he said. “They deserve a vote.”
The president described closing more than a decade of war with the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the coming year, cutting the American force there by about half.
He also talked about his targeted approach to fighting terrorists and extremism. “We don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations,” Obama said. “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” such as in Mali.
While Obama didn’t mention the use of remotely piloted drone aircraft, he said he will continue a policy of “direct action” to kill terrorists, including U.S. citizens when warranted. He pledged to be more transparent about a program he said is conducted within “a durable legal and policy framework.” The program came under fire during last week’s confirmation hearing for John Brennan, the president’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence and architect of the drone program.
Obama said that the U.S. and other nations will work together to “do what is necessary” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that provocative actions by North Korea including a nuclear test hours before his speech “only isolate them further.” He said the U.S. will seek to work with Russia to make more reductions in nuclear arsenals.
The president also pledged that the U.S. will continue to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and lasting peace,” he said. Obama plans to make his first trip to Israel as president next month.
He announced he has signed an executive order on cyber- security to develop voluntary standards to strengthen the security of private computer networks, protecting U.S. companies in critical industries.
Obama began his speech with a warning about the “sudden, harsh, arbitrary” spending cuts that loom if Congress fails to act to avert the sequester would slow the economy, “jeopardize our military readiness’ and ‘‘devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.’’
He said he stood by an offer he had previously made to cut spending on the Medicare health insurance plan for the elderly by cutting payments to drug companies, raising premiums for the wealthy and changing medical reimbursement procedures.
Still, he said Republican congressional leaders, who have said they will not accept more tax increases, must accept a ‘‘balanced approach’’ to deficit reduction that includes ‘‘getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.’’
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