WASHINGTON -- President Obama, seeking to put the prosperity and promise of the middle class at the heart of his second-term agenda, called on Congress on Tuesday night to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, saying that would lift millions out of poverty and energize the economy.
In an assertive State of the Union address that fleshed out the populist themes of his inauguration speech, Mr. Obama declared it was "our generation's task" to "reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class."
"Every day," he said, "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 to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
The increase in the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour now, was the most tangible of a raft of initiatives laid out by the president, from education and energy to public works projects. Taken together, Mr. Obama said, these investments would accelerate the nation's recovery by helping those in the broad middle class.
Raising the minimum wage holds particular political appeal for younger Americans, struggling workers and labor groups, all of which were important to Mr. Obama's re-election. His proposal drew one of the loudest ovations of the evening from Democrats in the House chamber.
Speaking to a divided Congress, with many Republicans still smarting from his November victory, Mr. Obama declared, "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger."
He urged lawmakers to act on immigration, climate change, budget negotiations, and, above all, on gun violence, delivering an emotional appeal for stricter controls that drew on recent tragedies like the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn.
"They deserve a vote," Mr. Obama declared over and over, gesturing to victims of various shootings, who were scattered through the audience.
Mr. Obama took the podium after a rousing welcome from lawmakers and other dignitaries. But millions of TV viewers, not to mention people glancing at their smartphones inside the chamber, were distracted by a manhunt across the country, where the police in California were tracking a suspect in the killing of officers and others.
News coverage concentrated on the search almost up to the point the president entered the chamber, and immediately after he finished, networks cut away to continue reporting on the events in California.
Republicans quickly rejected Mr. Obama's activist approach, saying it would inevitably translate into higher taxes and an overweening government role, strangling economic growth and deepening the nation's fiscal hole.
Still, in selecting Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida, to deliver their party's official rebuttal, Republicans implicitly acknowledged the damage they had suffered at the polls from their hard line stance on immigration. Mr. Rubio, one of the party's rising stars, favors overhauling immigration laws.
On Tuesday, he complained that Mr. Obama's "solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more, and spend more."
In a speech dominated by domestic issues, Mr. Obama admonished North Korea a day after it tested a nuclear weapon. He warned the country's reclusive government that it faced further isolation, swift retaliation and a United States bent on improving its own missile defense systems.
As new threats erupted, however, old threats were receding, Mr. Obama said. He announced, for example, that 34,000 troops would return home from Afghanistan by this time next year. That withdrawal, representing slightly more than half the current American force, underlined his resolve to quickly wind down the second war of his presidency.
Mr. Obama did not match the lofty tone of his inauguration speech, but the address was clearly intended to be its workmanlike companion. In place of his ringing call for a more equitable society was a package of proposals that constitute a blueprint for the remainder of his presidency. Some would require legislation; others merely an executive order.
Among the proposals was a $1 billion investment to create 15 institutes to develop new manufacturing technologies, building on the success of a pilot project in Youngstown, Ohio. He said he would use oil and gas royalties from federal lands to pay for research in clean energy technology that would wean cars and trucks off oil.
Mr. Obama pledged to work with states to provide high-quality preschool to every child in America. And he recycled a proposal to help homeowners refinance their mortgages.
None of these proposals, Mr. Obama said, would add to the deficit, since they were consistent with the budget deal of 18 months ago. "It's not a bigger government we need," he said, "but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
Mr. Obama also signaled, however, that the era of single-minded deficit-cutting should end. He noted that the recent agreements on taxes and spending reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion, more than halfway toward the $4 trillion in reductions that economists say would put the nation's finances on a sustainable course.
Mr. Obama spoke darkly of the consequences of a failure to reach a budget deal, which would set off automatic spending cuts on the military and other programs. "These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness," he said.
On climate change, Mr. Obama endorsed the cap-and-trade legislation once championed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, but long stalled in Congress. Though the president said he would not hesitate to use executive orders to push his own measures to reduce carbon emissions, he did not give any details.
In another sign of the election's lingering shadow, Mr. Obama was creating a bipartisan commission to investigate voting irregularities that led to long lines at polling sites in November. Studies indicate that these lines cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes. The commission will be led by the chief counsel of the Obama presidential campaign, Robert Bauer, and a legal adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign, Ben Ginsberg.
On trade policy, the president said that the United States and the European Union were ready to begin negotiations on a comprehensive trade treaty. That came after a report submitted earlier in the day concluded that the gaps between the two sides were narrow enough to put a deal within reach.
The most impassioned parts of the speech echoed those that Mr. Obama delivered on the west front of the Capitol three weeks ago.
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country," he said. "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."
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few," he continued. "That it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours."
Children loomed large on Tuesday night. In addition to a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the guests included the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student whose shooting death in Chicago has become an emblem of the grim toll of gun violence.
"She was 15 years old," Mr. Obama said of Ms. Pendleton, in words that briefly transcended the political bromides and policy prescriptions of these speeches. "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."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.