WASHINGTON, Feb 13 – President Barack Obama staked his second term on an ambitious bid to mend America, pledging to narrow inequality, reignite the economy, fight gun crime and fix immigration.
Anchoring his annual State of the Union address on domestic priorities, Obama dealt only in passing with churning foreign policy crises, including North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s controversial atomic program.
Closing in on his goal of ending an era of draining US wars abroad, Obama announced plans to halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, while vowing that the global pursuit of terror would go on.
He also struck a note of optimism in counseling middle class Americans still gripped by economic angst.
“Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” Obama said, in a speech punctuated by 23 standing ovations in the House of Representatives.
The address, before a huge national audience, was Obama’s best chance to sell his second-term plans to a divided nation and to stave off the domestic lame duck status all second-term presidents dread.
Obama called for fixing the gaping budget deficit, but described billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts due March 1 as “a really bad idea.”
In an address steeped in progressive ideology, he slammed Republican ideas of adjusting retirement benefits and health care for seniors as “even worse.”
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said, seeking to turn election vows that everyone should get a “fair shot” into reality.
Obama’s message was unapologetically tailored to a domestic American audience, as he insisted that government investment must bankroll jobs growth.
“He will be about revitalizing the middle class and (easing) a sense of insecurity that has swept through much of the nation,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
But Republicans wasted no time in trying to thwart Obama’s plans.
“President Obama? He believes … that the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough,” said rising star Senator Marco Rubio, giving the Republican rebuttal speech.
“As you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Obama’s reflex instinct for compromise has ebbed after years of partisan warfare.
Now he seems intent on leveraging political capital won with his re-election to force his will in Congress, banking on the idea that Republicans will pay the price for standing in the way of ideas voters support.
Obama was at his most passionate when making the case for measures to stem gun violence, following the shocking massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” he cried, drawing lawmakers to their feet in an emotional tribute to victims of gun crime.
“These proposals deserve a vote.”
Looking on in the House gallery were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager killed in a random shooting not far from the president’s Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
In a keenly awaited move, Obama announced the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
“This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he said.