President Obama, delivering his first State of the Union Address of his second term, laid out clear agenda to fulfill his overriding goals of renewing the engine of prosperity and opportunity in the United States and securing its defense.
But the most powerful and emotional moment came when he pleaded with Congress to "let them vote" on measures to reduce gun violence.
More than two dozen guests in the room, including the parents of slain 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton, slain a week after marching in the Inaugural Parade at a park a mile from Obama's Chicago home, and Gabby Giffords, and a first grade teacher from Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut, were in the audience.
"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," he said. "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.
Intoning multiple times, "They deserve a vote," the President said, "Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government."
The speech was filled with specific proposals - many that he has been pushing for years and still languishing in the sinkhole that Congress has become, like the American Jobs Act and a bill that would allow credit-worthy homeowners to refinance mortgages at historically low interest levels, which would also strengthen the housing market.
But he also called for bold measures including raising the minimum wage to $9 and linking minimum wage to inflation - a proposal, he noted, that Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney had proposed, and real, comprehensive immigration reform. And he accepted that there needs to be reforms to Medicare, but in a way to preserve benefits.
He called for universal pre-K, and called on colleges to address affordability, said would come out with a new College Scorecard (Know Before You Owe), asked Congress to amend the Higher Education Act "so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid," and called for incentivizing reforms of the high school curricula so that graduates are better prepared for jobs.
"Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."
He laid out a prescription to increase jobs - calling for investments in infrastructure, in policies to increase manufacturing in the United States, and tax reform measures.
Jobs: "Let’s offer incentives to companies that hire Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance. Let’s put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods. And this year, my Administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We’ll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, education, and housing. We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest. And we’ll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood – because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one."
Speaking of jobs-creation programs, Obama said, "And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings," prompting a chuckle.
On infrastructure Obama proposed "a 'Fix-It-First' program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.
On manufacturing, the President pointed to the success of a manufacturing hub, to announce "the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America."
Research & Development: "Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. We need to make those investments." (applause)
It bears noting that among the guests in the audience was 16-year old Jack Andraka, Intel Science winner for his new method to detect pancreatic cancer.
Energy: "And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy," Obama said, pointing to his Administration's efforts to cut red tape and speed up new oil and gas permits.
"That’s got to be part of an all-of-the above plan," he said, " But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water."
He proposed using "some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good" to "free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long.
"I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen."
Climate Change: The president was bold in his delivery, especially confronting climate change as a challenge that must be addressed -because of the environment and the economy - and dared Congress to do it or he would.
"I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. (applause)
"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."
Sequester, Debt Crisis & the Economy
Obama began the speech with a twist on the standard State of the Union speech starter: "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," but went on to point to the nuance, the complexity to the answer to the question, and laid out a challenge to Congress.
"But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication 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 and 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. (Standing ovation/applause)
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.
"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.
"The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. (Applause/standing ovation).
"They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.
"Our work must begin by making some basic decisions about our budget – decisions that will have a huge impact on the strength of our recovery."
But he chided Congress for not resolving the next threat to the economy, the Sequester..
"The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. (Big applause)
"Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. "
But he declared that the proposals he is making to invest in infrastructure, education, research and development and the like will not add to the deficit.
"Let me repeat – 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," he said.
The president pointed to the $2.5 trillion in debt reduction that have already been secured through spending cuts and that miniscule increase in tax rates for the wealthiest of wealthiest. But he called for ending tax loopholes and reforming the tax code to make it simpler and fairer.
"To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair?
Acknowledging the need to reform Medicare, he outlined a path to achieve savings without cutting benefits.
"Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And 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.
"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. We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters. Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity.
On Medicare, he said, "I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission.
"Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs. The reforms I’m proposing go even further. We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. We’ll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare,"
He declared, "And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep – but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.
"The time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform," the President declared, prompting one of the largest standing ovations, mainly from Democrats, with big cheers, whistles, and a smile from Senator Charles Schumer.
"Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.
And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy. (Applause, standing ovation)
"In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.
"But we can’t stop there. We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence. Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago. I urge the House to do the same," he said, turning to Vice President biden saying, "Good Job Joe.". (applause/standing ovation)
And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year. (applause/standing ovation).
In another powerful moment, Obama pointed to the bravery of Desiline Victor, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti and retired farmworker sitting in the First Lady's box, who had stood for six hours in Florida in order to fulfill her right to vote - she was 102 years old.
"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.
"That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And it definitely needs improvement.
"I’m asking two long-time experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy."
National Security and Defense
President Obama announced that earlier in the day, he had "signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks on a bipartisan basis."
The President also announced "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 said to big cheers and a standing ovation which Speaker John Boehner did not join.
Confronting the controversial drone program and the so-called "kill list" without using the phrases, Obama said that as the country continues to confront the "evolving" threat of terrorism,
"we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counter-terrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.
"I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.
Obama reaffirmed his priority of addressing nuclear proliferation, as well as to restraint North Korea and Iran.
"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.
Trade Policy: Obama announced plans to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."
'We are Citizens'
After pointing to the heroes who came forward after incidents of gun violence, he said, "We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy," a guest in the First Lady's box.
"When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside – even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.
"When asked how he did that, Brian said, 'That’s just the way we’re made'.
"We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us," The President concluded said "But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:
"We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."
The speech was well received and an indication that the policies presented are broadly embraced by the American people: 53% said they were strongly favorable; 24% said they were favorable and only 22% said they had an unfavorable reaction to the speech.
The Republican response, delivered by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, considered a rising star in the party, seemed to be delivering a campaign speech for a primary. His speech was a personal attack on the President, filled with platitudes and mischaracterizations of the President's proposals and policies, such as the old-saw that Obama opposes free enterprise, and favors raising taxes, higher spending and bigger government, but presenting no concrete proposals or solutions to the pressing challenges.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, widely viewed as a potential 2016 Presidential candidate, reacted to the speech saying, "President Obama put forward a bold, comprehensive agenda in his 2013 State of the Union Address that continues to rebuild our nation’s economy and strengthens the middle class.
"The vision President Obama presented tonight is one we embrace here in New York. The President laid out an agenda for a vibrant American future, where we work together to bring jobs back from overseas, train our young people to have the skills they need to succeed in the workforce, and ensure those who work long and hard hours can provide for their families. The President from his first day in office has sought to reform our education system to benefit our students, and the vision he put forward tonight continues this effort by calling for all our children to have access to high quality preschool education. I commend his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage, in recognition that the current rate is not enough to earn a living.
"Since the President delivered his 2012 State of the Union Address just twelve months ago, our nation has felt more than in any year before the tragic consequences of gun violence, from the senseless shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the evil massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, to the murder of two of our first responders in Webster. The President is right to say that action must be taken. The vast majority of Americans believe in sensible gun safety laws, and I commend the President for outlining a series of reasonable measures to reduce gun violence in our nation.
"Over the past months, New Yorkers have been thankful for the President’s leadership and action in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The federal funding that our Congressional delegation fought so hard for and the President signed into law will be a major help for our state and entire region, and will enable our communities to rebuild smarter and stronger than before. As President Obama begins his second term in office and our nation’s economy begins to get back on track, I look forward to continued collaboration between New York and our federal partners as we work toward finding solutions to the problems we face and building a bright future for our children," Cuomo stated.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
© 2013 News & Photo Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. For editorial feature and photo information, go to www.news-photos-features.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. 'Like' us on facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures.