WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday invoked an economy stoked by a vigorous middle class as the North Star that must guide the country.
In his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, he called on a nation he called the greatest and wealthiest in the world to live up to its promise and on its citizens to be "the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."
"Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation," Mr. Obama said. "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?"
He proposed universal preschool education, better job preparation in high school, increasing green energy and decreasing energy waste, using a share of money from energy development on government land to decrease dependence on foreign oil, creating consortiums of government, universities and private industry to boost manufacturing, starting a "Fix-It-First" program to spur jobs aimed at repairing existing infrastructure rather than building new, increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 by 2015, and reaching out to poor communities. He announced an executive order he had made earlier in the day to beef up cybersecurity.
He called for an overhaul of the tax system and deficit reduction but said deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan and that job creation was crucial for economic growth.
He urged Congress to put aside brinkmanship "that stresses consumers and scares off investors."
"The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next," he said. "Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America."
Mr. Obama also put a number on the planned troop drawdown in Afghanistan: "Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
And he vowed: "Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
In the Republican response to Mr. Obama's address, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came right back at the president, saying his solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."
Mr. Rubio, a rising GOP star, said presidents of both parties have recognized that the free enterprise system brings middle-class prosperity.
"But President Obama?" Mr. Rubio said. "He believes it's the cause of our problems."
Mr. Obama began his speech by saying that after "grinding" war and "grueling" recession, "the grit and determination of the American people" had put the country back on track.
"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.
As he did in his re-election campaign and inaugural address, Mr. Obama emphasized the middle class and reinvigorating the economy by helping the poor move into the middle class, helping the middle class thrive, educating students for jobs, and putting resources into energy and infrastructure.
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Mr. Obama said.
"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."
He didn't put numbers to his proposals. A White House aide told reporters that, taken together with tax overhaul and with spending reductions the president previously proposed, the policies would not increase spending and would help reduce the deficit.
On other issues he pushed in his inaugural, including immigration, the president called for more work on programs already outlined.
Mr. Obama made an impassioned plea for stricter gun laws, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, invoking slain teen Hadiya Pendleton, whose parents were seated with first lady Michelle Obama.
"She was 15 years old," the president said. "She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."
Gun control measures deserve a vote, Mr. Obama said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice," he said -- but the measures deserve a vote. Hadiya, her parents, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the families of Newtown, the families of Aurora and other communities affected by gun violence -- all deserve a vote, he said.
He paid tribute to individuals who had risen to challenges, including a police officer who responded to the shooting in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and concluded: "We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story."
It was an aggressive agenda laid out by a president made more confident by November's better-than-expected election results.
Mr. Obama, whose signature policy so far has been the Affordable Care Act, is seeking to build on this legacy during the small window that comes between a second inaugural and mid-term elections, when the parties of lame duck presidents typically lose seats in Congress.
"The president is not going to get everything he wants, but [Republicans] aren't going to get everything they want, either," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.
"The State of the Union address is part wish list and part calling on the Congress to work with the executive branch to move the country forward. We've seen so much rancor since the election and all of us hope we can put that behind us and move forward," Mr. Doyle said.
With that rancor expected to continue, the president has issued some of his policy initiatives as executive orders that do not require congressional approval. Those include increasing cybersecurity and opening three centers of manufacturing innovation, even as he calls on Congress to create a nationwide network of such business-university partnerships.
That approach troubles Republicans like Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson of Centre County.
"I don't think anything he's going to do through the back door like that is going to be well received. I think there's a general growing distrust of executive orders," Mr. Thompson said. "That's not how we're supposed to operate. If he's got ideas about things we should do that's great, but he needs to figure out a way to work with the legislative branch. He needs to reach out with communications in a collaborative way, and I would absolutely welcome that."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he hopes there's more room for compromise than there's been during the president's first term, especially when it comes to a discussion of a tax overhaul.
"As long as that's not code for a tax increase, I think we should do it," Mr. Toomey said.
"He understands he's dealing with a Congress in which many members believe we're spending too much. I think he understands that now."
Most members of Pennsylvania's delegation, Republicans and Democrats alike, were glad to hear the emphasis on jobs, a focus some found missing from the inaugural address three weeks ago.
"While the economy has made good progress, there is no doubt that more needs to be done," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. "I was particularly grateful that he recognized the need for investments in the manufacturing sector.
"It's imperative that Republicans and Democrats work together on a balanced approach to reduce the deficit while making smart investments in manufacturing, education, small business and R&D that will continue to create jobs."
Mr. Toomey, who listened stoically and seldom applauded during the president's speech, said afterward that he was also encouraged that the president focused on job creation and that he would support harnessing energy from publicly owned land.
"We agree on those things, but I disagree with many of the ideas he would like to pursue to get us there," Mr. Toomey said.
Republicans said that the president has allowed other issues -- such as health care, gun control and immigration -- overshadow job creation, which should be the real priority as the nation recovers from deep recession.
"I haven't heard a lot about jobs" from the president before now, said Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley. But he said the approach was wrong. "President Obama once again promised a Washington-centered approach to addressing our nation's economic woes. Unfortunately, the unprecedented growth of government spending that characterized his first term has resulted in too many Americans out-of-work, too many families who struggle to pay the bills, and too much debt on our children's shoulders."
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said that the president's "vow to cut red tape and speed up new oil and gas permits is encouraging," but that "our nation's overall fiscal problems demand more than empty promises to cut spending or firm promises to raise taxes."
Mr. Doyle said job creation has always been important to Mr. Obama but Tuesday's speech showed he's ready to address it in a more focused way.
"A lot of us have wanted to see the president a lot more personally involved in it. He can call on Congress to do it, but he's got to get out and address it himself, and now he is," Mr. Doyle said.
Staff writer Lillian Thomas contributed. The Associated Press contributed. Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com. First Published February 13, 2013 5:15 AM