Among the guests seated in the first lady’s box for the speech were the parents of a slain Chicago teen, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six educators were slain in December, and a Wisconsin police officer who was wounded in a shooting spree in August at a Sikh temple.
The president recited a litany of mass shootings in America and demanded that lawmakers allow a vote on proposals for comprehensive background checks, for an assault weapons ban and for a limit on the capacity of gun magazines.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” he said, referring to the former congresswoman wounded by a gunman. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”
As he spoke, lawmakers rose to their feet and Democrats raised their voices in a crescendo of approval.
Lawmakers also gave a standing ovation to 102-year-old Miami resident Desiline Victor, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti who stood in line for three hours at a polling place on the first Sunday of early voting in Florida until workers told her to come back later that evening. She was seated in the first lady’s box.
Following up on his inaugural address, Mr. Obama also devoted a lengthy passage of his speech to his intention to combat climate change, asking Congress to pursue a “bipartisan, market-based solution” and threatening executive action if it did not.
“It’s true that no single event makes a trend,” Mr. Obama said. “But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods — all are now more frequent and intense.”
The president said the U.S. can make “meaningful progress” on the issue while improving the economy. But he also warned of unilateral action, possibly alluding to the Environmental Protection Agency’s power, confirmed by federal courts, to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.
“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
Mr. Obama’s effort to sell his initiatives to the public began as soon as he left the podium. Around 10 p.m. Tuesday, he took part in an online conference call with supporters from the nonprofit group Organizing for America, a recycled entity from his re-election campaign. OFA official Jon Carson said the president spoke “about his plan for moving the country forward” and how the public can help.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama will embark on a series of road trips to sell his agenda to the public, beginning with an appearance at a manufacturing plant in Asheville, N.C. On Thursday, the president will travel to an early-childhood learning center in Decatur, Ga. On Friday, he will visit his home base of Chicago, scene of hundreds of shooting deaths despite the city’s strict gun controls.
Tuesday’s speech was only Mr. Obama’s fourth “State of the Union” address, because, technically, incoming presidents merely give a speech to Congress. They cannot advise on what had happened to the government the previous year.
The president’s day began with the unwelcome news around 2 a.m. that North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, a move that Mr. Obama denounced as a “highly provocative act.” The president said the U.S. and its allies will take unspecified “swift and credible action.”
And Mr. Obama also announced that the U.S. will bring home 34,000 more troops from Afghanistan by this time next year. That plan will reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan by about half, and remain on schedule to end the U.S. combat mission within two years. The two governments are negotiating on the size of a U.S. force to remain in the country after 2014.