President Barack Obama has urged Congress to support his plans to use fund job creation and to strengthen the nation's middle class. In his State of the Union address, Obama said Republican ideas for reducing the deficit are "even worse" than the unpalatable deals Washington had to stomach during his first term. He also challenged lawmakers to being gun control measures up for votes.
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama set up high-stakes clashes over guns, immigration, taxes and climate change in a State of the Union address that showcased a newly re-elected president determined to mark his legacy, facing off against a deeply divided Congress with Republicans eager to rein him in.
At the center of it all was a fight over the very role of government, with Obama pushing a raft of new initiatives to improve preschool programs and voting, boost manufacturing and research and development, raise the minimum wage and lower energy use. "It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many and not just the few," he said.
Republicans who control the House and hold enough votes to stall legislation in the Senate were just as quick to declare that the government helps best by getting out of the way.
"More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back. More government isn't going to create more opportunities. It's going to limit them," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in the Republican response Tuesday night. "And more government isn't going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It's going to create uncertainty."
Uncompromising and aggressive, Obama pressed his agenda on social issues and economic ones, declaring himself determined to intervene to right income inequality and boost the middle class. He called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, far-reaching gun control measures and a climate bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He threatened to go around Congress with executive actions on climate change if it fails to act.
But Obama cannot count on willing partners on those issues, any one of which could tie Congress in knots for months with no guarantee of success. Gun control, which Obama made a focus of his speech, faces dim prospects on Capitol Hill. The prospect for immigration legislation is better, but no sure thing. Climate change legislation is given no chance of success.
And Obama addressed relatively briefly the looming fiscal crises confronting the nation and inevitably sucking up oxygen on Capitol Hill — the deep automatic spending cuts or "sequester" to take effect March 1, followed by the government running out of money to fund federal agencies March 27. He made clear he will continue to press for the rich to pay more in taxes, a position Republicans have rejected.
Republicans, meanwhile, made clear they're in little mood to cooperate.
"We are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president's sequester, and he failed to offer the cuts needed to replace it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. "In the last election, voters chose divided government which offers a mandate only to work together to find common ground. The president, instead, appears to have chosen a go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda."
In specific proposals for his second term, an assertive Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation's roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit "by a single dime."
Obama also announced new steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year. And he had a sharp rebuke for North Korea, which launched a nuclear test just hours before his remarks, saying, "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further."
Despite the pressing foreign policy concerns, jobs and growth dominated Obama's prime-time address, underscoring the degree to which the economy remains a vulnerability for the president and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.
Standing in Obama's way is a Congress that remains nearly as divided as it was during the final years of his first term, when Washington lurched from one crisis to another.
The president implored lawmakers to break through partisan logjams, asserting that "the greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."
"Americans don't expect government to solve every problem," he said. "They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."
Yet Obama offered few signs of being willing to compromise himself, instead doubling down on his calls to create jobs by spending more government money and insisting that lawmakers pay down the deficit through a combination of targeted spending cuts and tax increases. But he offered few specifics on what he wanted to see cut, focusing instead on the need to protect programs that help the middle class, elderly and poor.
He did reiterate his willingness to tackle entitlement changes, particularly on Medicare, though he has ruled out increasing the eligibility age for the popular benefit program for seniors.
Republicans are ardently opposed to Obama's calls for legislating more tax revenue to reduce the deficit and offset broad the automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — that are to take effect March 1.
Obama broke little new ground on two agenda items he has pushed vigorously since winning re-election: overhauling the nation's fractured immigration laws and enacting tougher gun control measures in the wake of the horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn. Yet he pressed for urgency on both, calling on Congress to send him an immigration bill "in the next few months" and insisting lawmakers hold votes on his gun proposals.
"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice."
Numerous lawmakers wore green lapel ribbons in memory of those killed in the December shootings in Connecticut. Among those watching in the House gallery: the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed recently in a park just a mile from the president's home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.
On the economy, Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2007, and administration officials said the increase would strengthen purchasing power. The president also wants Congress to approve automatic increases in the wage to keep pace with inflation.
Looking for common ground anywhere he could find it, Obama framed his proposal to boost the minimum wage by pointing out that even his GOP presidential rival liked the idea. He said, "Here's an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."
Obama also renewed his calls for infrastructure spending, investments he sought repeatedly during his first term with little support from Republicans. He pressed lawmakers to approve a $50 billion "fix it first" program that would address the most urgent infrastructure needs.
Education also figures in Obama's plans to boost American competitiveness in the global economy. Under his proposal, the federal government would help states provide pre-school for all 4-year-olds. Officials did not provide a cost for the pre-school programs but said the government would provide financial incentives to help states.
THE PRESIDENT'S STATE OF THE UNION PROPOSALS IN 13 POLICY AREAS
From the Associated Press
JOBS: Partner with businesses and communities to invest in American-made technologies through a network of Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, three of which Obama said he will create by executive order. Eliminate tax breaks that encourage companies to move jobs outside the U.S., and rewrite the tax code.
HOUSING: Spend $15 billion to help communities awash in foreclosed and vacant properties rebuild while creating construction jobs.
MINIMUM WAGE: Increase the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, to $9 in stages by the end of 2015, and allow for automatic increases to keep pace with inflation. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney supported the idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
GUN CONTROL: Ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, require background checks for all firearms purchases and increase access to mental health services.
AFGHANISTAN: Withdraw 34,000 U.S. military forces, just under half the 66,000 troops still there, within a year.
IMMIGRATION: Continue to tighten the border, crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, establish a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without , and streamline the immigration system for families, workers and businesses.
WOMEN: Renew the Violence Against Women Act to help protect victims of domestic violence and help law enforcement investigate and prosecute sexual assaults. The Senate voted Tuesday to renew the law; Obama called on the House to quickly send him a bill.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Provide access to a high-quality preschool for all children from families with low or moderate incomes.
TRADE: Begin talks on a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union to promote the exchange of goods across the Atlantic.
FEDERAL BUDGET: Continue to work toward the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction and stabilizing the debt as a percentage of the economy, both over 10 years.
INFRASTRUCTURE: Spend $50 billion on a "Fix It First" program for urgent repairs to roads, bridges and railways.
ENERGY-CLIMATE CHANGE: Make permanent and refundable a tax credit for renewable energy to help double the production from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020. Help states cut energy waste and increase efficiency through a competitive grant program modeled after a similar program for education. Direct Cabinet secretaries to identify additional executive steps to deal with climate change.
EDUCATION: Launch a competition to help redesign and modernize high schools, and create a corps of 10,000 of the nation's brightest science and math teachers to improve instruction in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
WATCH THE SPEECH
FACT-CHECKING THE SPEECH
From the Associated Press.
President Barack Obama did some cherry-picking Tuesday night in defense of his record on jobs and laid out a conditional path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that may be less onerous than he made it sound.
A look at some of the claims in his State of the Union speech, a glance at the Republican counterargument and how they fit with the facts:
OBAMA: "After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over 6 million new jobs."
THE FACTS: That's in the ballpark, as far as it goes. But Obama starts his count not when he took office, but from the point in his first term when job losses were the highest. In doing so, he ignores the 5 million or so jobs that were lost on his watch, up to that point.
Private sector jobs have grown by 6.1 million since February 2010. But since he became president, the gain is a more modest 1.9 million.
And when losses in public sector employment are added to the mix, his overall jobs record is a gain of 1.2 million.
OBAMA: "We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas."
THE FACTS: Not so fast.
That's expected to happen in 12 more years.
Under a deal the Obama administration reached with automakers in 2011, vehicles will have a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, twice the 27 miles per gallon, on average, that cars and trucks get today. Automobile manufacturers won't start making changes to achieve the new fuel economy standards until model year 2017. Not all cars will double their gas mileage, since the standard is based on an average of a manufacturers' fleet.
OBAMA: "Already the Affordable Care Act is helping to reduce the growth of health care costs."
THE FACTS: The jury is still out on whether Obama's health care overhaul will reduce the growth of health care costs. It's true that cost increases have eased, but many experts say that's due to the sluggish economy, not to the health care law, whose main provisions are not yet fully in effect.
OBAMA: "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."
THE FACTS: The seemingly stern admonition that illegal immigrants must go to the back of the line, often heard from the president, doesn't appear to have much practical effect except in the most obvious sense. Everyone who joins a line, whether for a movie, a coffee or citizenship, starts at the back of that particular line. It's not clear he is saying anything more than that illegal immigrants won't get to cut in line for citizenship once they've obtained provisional legal status.
Like those living abroad who have applied to come to the U.S. legally, illegal immigrants who qualify for Obama's proposed path to citizenship will surely face long waits to be processed. But during that time, they are already in the U.S. and will get to stay, work and travel in the country under their new status as provisional immigrants, while those outside the U.S. simply have to wait.
Sending illegal immigrants to the "back of the line" is something of a distinction without a difference for some legal immigrants who dutifully followed all the rules before coming to the United States.
For instance, some legal immigrants who are in the U.S. on an employer-sponsored visa can't easily change jobs, or in some cases take a promotion, without jeopardizing their place in line to get a green card. In other cases, would-be legal immigrants in other countries wait for years to be able to settle in the U.S.
Obama is using "back of the line" somewhat figuratively, because there are multiple lines depending on the applicant's relationship with family already in the U.S. or with an employer. Generally, a foreign-born spouse of a U.S. citizen or someone with needed skills and a job offer will be accepted more quickly than many others.
But even as a figurative point, his assertion may cloak the fact that people who came to the U.S. illegally and win provisional status have the great advantage over applicants abroad of already being where they all want to go.
OBAMA: "Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. ... And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. ... Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."
THE FACTS: Dozens of studies have shown Head Start graduates are more likely to complete high school than their at-risk peers who don't participate in the program. But a study last year by the Department of Health and Human Services that found big vocabulary and social development gains for at-risk students in pre-kindergarten programs also found those effects largely faded by the time pupils reached third grade. The report didn't explain why the kids saw a drop-off in performance or predict how they would fare as they aged.
OBAMA: "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. 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."
THE FACTS: Obama failed to get a global warming bill through Congress when both Houses were controlled by Democrats in 2010. With Republicans in control of the House, the chances of a bill to limit the gases blamed for global warming and to create a market for businesses to trade pollution credits are close to zero. The Obama administration has already acted to control greenhouse gases through existing law. It has boosted fuel-efficiency standards and proposed rules to control heat-trapping emissions from new power plants. And while there are still other ways to address climate change without Congress, it's questionable regulation alone can achieve the reductions needed to start curbing global warming.
THE GOP ON DEBT
FLORIDA SEN. MARCO RUBIO, in the Republican response: "The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending $1 trillion more than it takes in every year. That's why we need a balanced-budget amendment."
THE FACTS: That statement may reflect the math behind recent debt, but it doesn't get directly to the cause — the worst recession since the Depression and its aftereffects. The deficit is not only caused by spending, but by reduced tax revenues. And during the recession, revenues from both individual and corporate taxes fell markedly.
The steep increases in debt and the measures that should be taken to ease the burden are central to the debate in Washington. But there is no serious move afoot to amend the Constitution to prohibit deficit spending.
The ability to take on debt has been used by governments worldwide and through U.S. history to shelter people from the ravages of a down economy, wage war and achieve many other ends. An effort to amend the Constitution for any purpose faces daunting odds; this would be no exception. Most state constitutions demand a balanced budget, but states lack some big obligations of the federal government, including national defense. And Washington's ability to go deeper into debt provides states with at least a minimal safety net in times of high unemployment.
Associated Press writers Tom Raum, Dina Cappiello, Andrew Taylor, Christopher S. Rugaber, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alicia A. Caldwell and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.