Laying out an activist, big-spending second-term agenda, President Obama called on Congress in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address to spend more on job-creation proposals for the middle class and claimed it would not add to the nation’s huge budget deficits.
After four years of weak economic recovery, Mr. Obama issued a plea for lawmakers to approve more spending on infrastructure, renewable-energy projects and education. He also called for an increase of the federal minimum wage, to $9 per hour up from $7.25, saying “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Mr. Obama said in his fourth State of the Union address. “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.”
In a one-hour address that was mainly aimed at his Democratic base, Mr. Obama called for action on climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, voting rights and gun control. But the main thrust of his speech was devoted to proposals to boost the economy through more government spending.
The president proposed tens of billions of dollars in new spending, including a $50 billion program to fix aging bridges nationwide, $15 billion to rebuild communities hard-hit by the housing crisis and a sweeping expansion of early-childhood education services.
He argued that all his proposals will be paid for, and they won’t add to the annual deficit that has been running at more than $1 trillion per year for his entire term of office.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
Mr. Obama said his economic proposals are “fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly disagreed, predicting on CNN that the “single dime” line would sink his proposals.
“This is the most pro-government speech since Lyndon Johnson,” he said after the speech, elaborating that Mr. Obama had reversed Democratic President Bill Clinton’s famous declaration that the “era of big government is over.”
The president focused his speech on jobs and the economy, reasserting themes from his campaign and his second inaugural speech. He is advocating higher taxes on wealthier households, such as the tax increase on families earning more than $450,000 that he secured Jan. 1.
As he delivered his new agenda, he’s facing a March 1 deadline with Congress to avoid automatic spending cuts aimed at reducing the deficit. He rejected suggestions from lawmakers of both parties to stave off defense cuts with revenue from domestic programs.
Deficit reduction was a relatively small part of Mr. Obama’s comments. The president said he would still accept a theoretical deal with the GOP to cut $900 billion in spending over the next decade, coupled with $600 billion in new tax revenue from closing loopholes mainly for wealthier taxpayers.
He also pledged to trim Medicare spending by reducing taxpayer subsidies to drug companies and by means-testing for wealthier seniors. But the president emphasized that he believes he has already done more than half of the heavy lifting of deficit reduction, by cutting $2.5 trillion over the next decade.
“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda,” he said. “But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
Even before Mr. Obama spoke, many Republican lawmakers were openly skeptical that the economy will improve under his stewardship, given the record of the past four years. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, told party colleagues in a memo that Mr. Obama’s economic policies have failed.
“More people are living in poverty, wages are flat, millions have completely exited the labor force, and fraud and abuse remain rampant,” Mr. Sessions said.
Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairmanof the House Education and Workforce Committee, said after the speech that Mr. Obama had “outlined a case for more big government.”
“Instead of focusing on the ingenuity and greatness of the American people, the president repeated the same broken promises that have kept unemployment hovering around 8 percent and hampered economic growth,” Mr. Kline said.
Not all the Republican reaction was negative — Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost the presidency to Mr. Obama in 2008, said he thought the president’s speech was “great.”
Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu was chosen as the “designated successor” — the person in the Cabinet who does not attend the State of the Union address so that, in the event a catastrophe stuck the Capitol and government officials were incapacitated, he could take temporary control.
The challenges facing Mr. Obama were set long before he walked triumphantly into the packed House chamber. The president is locked in a contentious battle with congressional Republicans over deficit reduction and spending, with mandatory “sequesters” due to take effect March 1.
The sequester, set in place by the 2011 debt deal, will require an $85 billion funding cut this year, with much of it coming out of the military and the rest from domestic discretionary spending.
There’s an urgency to the deadline, with the prospect of across-the-board cuts hurting the economy, as it did when the economy shrank in the fourth quarter of 2012. But the president is again facing a deeply divided Congress that has rejected consistently his job-growth proposals as too costly and misguided.
Most Democrats and Republicans want to cancel part or all of the defense cuts, but they disagree on how to do that. Mr. Obama wants to raise taxes, while Republicans say the Jan. 1 tax deal already raised revenue. The Republicans prefer to cut entitlement spending to preserve the military.
“The president already got the tax increases he wanted on January 1,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, prior to the president’s speech. “We’re done with the tax part of the equation. Republicans have been very clear about the fact that we’d rather enact smarter spending cuts. But Washington Democrats so far have failed to put forward a serious proposal of their own.”
Social initiatives took up a healthy portion of Mr. Obama’s agenda. On voting rights, the president proposed a nonpartisan commission led by two attorneys who worked on his and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns — Democrat Bob Bauer and Republican Ben Ginsberg — to investigate problems with election-day voting.
“When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Mr. Obama said. “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”
Rep. Candice Miller, Michigan Republican and chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, reacted negatively to the proposal, saying voting rights is a “state issue.”
“I do not support the president’s proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states,” she said. “There is not a Washington one-size-fits-all solution that will solve Florida’s, or any other state’s, problems. I also am completely opposed to such a commission putting forward mandates to be imposed on state’s like Michigan that would disrupt our already well-run system of elections.”
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.