Obama pleads for political truce
US president Barack Obama blows a kiss to Michelle Obama before delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, DC, last night. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg
US president Barack Obama challenged a politically polarised Congress to support him in narrowing the gulf between rich and poor, breathing life into a struggling US economy and changing gun laws as he set out ambitious goals for his second term.
In his first State of the Union address since his re-election, Mr Obama pleaded with politicians and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to set aside their differences in an effort to introduce change and to avoid “the brinkmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors”.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” he said in the annual State of the Union speech that lasted a little over an hour.
He filled in many of the policy gaps left by his rhetorical inaugural address last month, painting himself as the champion of the middle class and aiming to be a major legislative reformer in his second-term, despite not being in control of Congress.
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” said the Democratic president in his fourth State of the Union address.
He described it as “our generation’s task” to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class".
Mr Obama used the word "job" heavily in his 7,000-word speech, followed by tax, economy, deficit, energy and education, reflecting the focus of his address on the country's economic recovery.
The President was interrupted 86 times with fervently partisan applause from his own party supporters, including more than 30 standing ovations, a normal feature of the State of the Union speeches by US presidents.
The biggest response of the night came when Mr Obama referred to the effects of gun violence, noting the presence of a number of victims in the chamber for his speech, and later when he mentioned 102-year-old Desiline Victor who waited six hours to vote at a Miami polling station in last year's presidential election.
Naming victims of gun violence, including the families of 20 children murdered in the Newtown, Connecticut massacre in December, Mr Obama exhorted that they “deserve a simple vote," urging lawmakers to pass “common-sense” proposals, including background checks on all gun purchases.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. 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,” he said to growing applause in a rare occasion last night where he showed his oratorical skills.
Democrats in the chamber and many Republican senators wore green ribbons to remember victims of the Newtown shootings.
In the face of Republican opposition to more federal spending, the President said that the country did not need bigger government but a “smarter” government, for “the many, and not just the few.” Not one of his proposals in his speech should increase the country’s deficit “by a single dime,” he said.
Pushing for a more active government to deal with inequality, he called for an expansion of job training programmes, better education and an almost 25 per cent rise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour in three years – the first time Mr Obama has sought an increase in the wage in his presidency.
“Let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on,” he said, aligning himself with a proposal suggested by Mitt Romney, his presidential contender last year.
The President also demanded legislation to guarantee women were paid equally to men – which raised one of the loudest responses of the night – and announced a commission to improve the voting process.
Mr Obama said that the government “can’t just cut our prosperity”, calling for government investment in infrastructure and greater use of alternative clean energy.
He said that he proposed a reduction in the cost of Medicare, government healthcare for pensioners.
The President announced plans to launch talks on a transatlantic trade pact with the EU “because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”
Mr Obama also called for Congress to reverse the automatic $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, half of which will come from the defence budget, before they start coming into effect on March 1st.
“These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardise our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education and energy and medical research. They would certainly slow or recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said the President.
The traditional Republican response to the President’s address was given by Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and a rising star within a beaten-up political party trying to find a new identify after last year's election defeat.
Taking the unprecedented step for the party of speaking in English and Spanish to woo back Latino voters that favoured Obama, Rubio, a Cuban-American, said he hoped the President would “abandon his obsession with raising taxes.”
Mr Rubio, a possible Republican candidate for the Presidency in 2016, attacked Mr Obama’s economic policies saying that “more government isn’t going to help you get ahead, it’s going to hold you back.”
He said that the President’s tax increases and deficit spending would hurt the middle class.
“I don’t oppose our plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbours,” said the 41-year-old senator.
One of the most notable dissenters in the House of Representatives for Mr Obama’s speech late last night evening was Ted Nugent, the 64-year-old rocker and pro-gun supporter who once told the president to “suck on my machine gun”.
A guest of Republican representative Steve Stockman from Texas, Mr Nugent sat with arms crossed and grimaced during the speech, and was the focus of interest by the multitude of television news stations covering the address.