Obama called for raising the nation’s minimum wage to $9 from $7.25 and said Congress should avert the $85 billion sequester his administration argues would hamper the economy and interrupt important government programs.
He said lawmakers should approve new legislation restricting access to guns and providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
Seeking to build on the themes of his second inaugural address last month, Obama called for a nation that treats everyone equally, regardless of income, race, sex or sexual orientation.
“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,” Obama said, according to excerpts of his remarks.
On climate change, another issue he highlighted in his inaugural address, Obama argued Superstorm Sandy, terrible wildfires and a sever drought were not a “freak coincidence” but evidence of global warming, and urged lawmakers to pursue bipartisan legislation similar to the bill pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
If Congress does not act, Obama said he would, by directing his cabinet to come up with executive actions that would reduce pollution, “prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Before lawmakers who wore green ribbons to honor the victims of the December school shooting in Newton, Conn., Obama urged members of Congress to come together to pass legislation on universal background checks that would make it more difficult for criminals to get a hold of guns.
“If you want to vote ‘no,’ that’s your choice,” the president said to some of the evening's most raucous applause. “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,” Obama added, speaking about the former congresswoman attending the address who was shot in the head during a 2011 mass shooting. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.”
Obama sought to align his administration and its policies with the middle class repeatedly, calling for government action to make it easier for people to refinance their homes and to get better job training.
“Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” he said.
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” he said.
Obama acknowledged that the biggest driver of the deficit is rising healthcare costs, but argued against deep entitlement cuts for Medicare and Medicaid. Instead, he said he could accept reducing payments to drug companies and that wealthier seniors should be asked to pay more — two proposals he has made in the past.
To further reduce the deficit, Obama said Congress should get rid of tax loopholes and deductions “for the well-off and “well-connected.”
“Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit,” he said.
On the sequester, the White House has demanded that Congress replace the cuts with a different combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but Republicans have balked at including any new tax hikes after a “fiscal cliff” deal in January that brought in $600 billion in new taxes on wealthier households.
In the GOP response to Obama, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued the president’s “obsession with raising taxes” would stall the economic growth necessary to propel the middle class forward after a recession and slow recovery.
“Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio, a possible presidential candidate in 2016, said in an address given in both English and Spanish. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”
Addressing that criticism, Obama insisted his plans would not add to the deficit.
“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” the president said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
Obama argued government must not only encourage free enterprise and reward individual initiative, but also open “the doors of opportunity to every child” in the nation. The president called to "make high-quality preschool available to every child in America," arguing that every dollar invested in early education would save seven down the road, while boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and reducing violent crime.
He also appointed a new non-partisan voting commission, headed by the lawyers for his and Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns, to examine the long lines and voter roll errors that plagued November's election.
"When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals," Obama said.
White House officials had described Tuesday’s speech as the bookend to last month’s inaugural address, and supporters of increased gun controls, immigration reform, measures to address climate change and gay rights were invited to join first lady Michelle Obama in her box for the address.
The first lady’s guests included Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr., the parents of a Chicago teenager gunned down last month near the Obama’s family home; Brian Murphy, a first-responder to the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wis., last August; and a first-grade teacher who worked at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Lawmakers also invited guests to highlight their causes; freshman GOP Rep. Steve Stockman (Texas) invited Ted Nugent, a rock star and Second Amendment enthusiast.
On foreign policy, Obama announced 34,000 troops would return from Afghanistan by early 2014 adding that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over”, and called for the U.S. to stand by its allies in Asia and to strengthen missile defense after North Korea conducted a third test of a nuclear bomb.
“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,” Obama said.
The president said he would travel to Israel next month in pursuit of security in a lasting piece deal, promising to “stand steadfast.”
“These are messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month,” the president said.
But most of Obama’s address centered on his domestic agenda, which the president will seek to build upon during a three-day cross-country trip that will begin Wednesday with a visit to an auto parts manufacturer in Asheville, N.C.
On Thursday, he’ll discuss the economy at an Air Force Base outside of Atlanta, and on Friday, Obama will discuss raising the minimum wage and new investments in education that he argues would help people in poorer communities.
Those events are being paired with an aggressive social media and advertising push planned by the White House and its allies in the hours and days after the speech.
The president is particularly eager to inspire quick legislative action on these priorities, an implicit acknowledgment that the window of opportunity quickly closes for second-term presidents. With members of the House less than two years away from midterm elections — and the unofficial start to the 2016 presidential campaign — the White House knows that there is limited opportunity to achieve significant policy changes.
This story was posted at 9:13 and updated at 10:45 p.m.