Obama: "Thriving middle class" key to finishing economic recovery
President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. / AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Updated: 10:50 p.m. ET
Delivering his annual address to Congress for the fifth time in his presidency, President Obama in his State of the Union tonight made a sweeping pitch for an economic blueprint he says reflects "smarter," not "bigger" government, and laid out a series of proposals he promises will help deliver to the American people "a growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs" without increasing the deficit "by a single dime."
The president, in his fourth official State of the Union, outlined a broad swath of goals for the future of his tenure, touching on everything from the war in Afghanistan, to cyber-security, to his commitment to reducing gun violence in America.
But the primary focus of his remarks revolved around an outline for economic growth guided, he said, by principles that place paramount importance of reigniting what he called "the true engine of America's economic growth: A rising, thriving middle-class."
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Mr. Obama said. "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?"
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In his four-pronged strategy for achieving that goal, Mr. Obama stressed the need to attract more jobs to the U.S.; equip Americans with the skills they need to participate in a competitive global economy; raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour so it is tied to the cost of living; and cut the deficit in a "balanced" way. He also called for $1 billion for new manufacturing research, $50 billion for "fix it first" road repair funds, a new trade deal with the European Union.
The president particularly stressed the need for affordable, accessible education for students of all ages -- from toddlers to college students -- calling for universal pre-school for four-year-olds, as well as tweaks to standards for determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.
"Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on - by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime," he said. "Let's also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job."
Mr. Obama promised his proposals would be revenue-neutral.
"Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," he pledged. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
The president underscored, as he has many times, a commitment to reducing the national deficit while also avoiding a series of across-the-board "sequester" cuts slated to go into effect March 1. But he argued that as important as it is to avert the sequester cuts, they can't be prevented by "making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits," as he noted "some in this Congress have proposed."
"Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population," he said. "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... Most Americans - Democrats, Republicans, and independents - understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity."
Mr. Obama said he is prepared to enact a series of limited cost-cutting reforms for Medicare, including measures that would reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies, and ask more from wealthy seniors.
State of the Union address 2013
But for the remaining deficit reduction savings, he reiterated his call for comprehensive tax reform, urging Congress to support the closing of tax loopholes and deductions "for the well-off and 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? How does that promote growth?" he asked. "Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit."
Mr. Obama announced a new executive order aimed protecting the U.S. against cyber attacks, and stressed the importance of strengthening the nation's defenses "by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy."
He also announced the next step his administration's timetable for drawing down the Afghan war - including the return of 34,000 U.S. troops by this time next year.
"This drawdown will continue," said Mr. Obama. "And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
As in second inaugural address last month, Mr. Obama also gave ample space to subjects of critical importance to his liberal base, including climate change, immigration, gun violence, and social justice.
He made a strong push for climate change legislation, contending that "for the sake of our children and our future," action must be taken.
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