As expected, President Obama used his fifth State of the Union address to outline his vision for growing the nation’s economy, and improving its struggling middle class.
In a roughly hour-long speech, the president argued that although America’s economy is on the mend, more must be done to return it to its pre-recession form. To get it there, Obama advocated for billions more more in spending aimed at jump-starting the jobs market.
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”
With unemployment continuing to lag near eight percent, Obama has often been accused by his political opponents of taking his eye off the economy. However, he attempted to assure the public tonight that getting Americans back to work is truly his top priority.
“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.”
In order to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work, he floated more federal spending on long-sought items like infrastructure and clean energy research and development, which he said would create jobs, lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil, and improve the nation’s overall standing in the world. Obama also proposed raising the national minimum wage to $9.00 per hour, while lamenting that corporate executive pay “has never been higher.”
At the same time, in a nod to critics of such spending, the president promised to remained focused on deficit reduction, pledging to identify another $1.5 trillion in “smart savings” over the next decade.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” he said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
The president said his spending proposals “are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago.”
But he acknowledged something Republicans have been arguing for a long time; that healthcare spending is the biggest driver of the nation’s long-term deficits. To address that, Obama said he would embrace reforms that would generate as much in savings as his fiscal commission led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles proposed back in 2010.
“The reforms I’m proposing go even further,” he vowed. “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, because our medical bills shouldn’t be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital – they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. 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.”
His message for the middle class also included a call to action on allowing struggling homeowners to refinance their mortgages. Specifically, he urged lawmakers to pass legislation that he said would save the average borrower $3,000 a year.
“What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What’s holding us back? Let’s streamline the process, and help our economy grow.”
Pivoting to education, Obama urged lawmakers to make access to quality pre-school a top priority in his second term. Doing so, he argued, would save governments millions of dollars down the line. For older students, Obama proposed creating incentives for high schools to partner with the private sector on early job opportunities, and ordering his Department of Education to create a “College Scorecard” that will show college prospects which schools will give them “the most bang for [their] educational buck.”
Not surprisingly, Obama addressed a pair of hot-button issues that have dominated news headlines for weeks. First on gun control, the president repeated his desire for Congress to pass new laws aimed at banning assault weapons, limiting the sale of ammunition and instituting a nationwide background check system.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. 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.”
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote,” he continued, referring to the one-time Congresswoman who nearly lost her life after being shot in the head point blank a little over two years ago.
“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.”
Next, Obama urged Congress to come together to pass a large package of immigration reforms that would ultimately help put an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.
“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts,” he said. “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.”
Turning to issues abroad, the president made a few key declarations that embody his foreign policy agenda. First, he announced that he will begin the process of withdrawing 34,000 American soldiers from Afghanistan, effectively cutting our forces there in half.
“This draw down will continue,” he said. “And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
By this time next year only 35,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan, at which point Obama will spell out plans to make further reductions beyond 2014.
Obama argued that al Qaeda “is a shadow of its former self,” and thus it no longer makes sense to send tens of thousands of troops to fight them overseas. Instead, he suggested aiding “countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.”
The president added that “where necessary,” his administration would continue to target “those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” He offered a thorough defense of his use of drone strikes, and promised to oversee a more transparent national security policy in his second term.
“My Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations,” he said. “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.”
Responding to North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test yesterday, the president said that “provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.”
He later called for direct engagement with the regime in Iran, saying that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution.” On Syria, however, he offered little in the way of tough talk, pledging merely to “keep the pressure” on the regime led by brutal dictator Bashar Assad.