Addressing a still-divided Congress, President Barack Obama appealed to the needs of the middle class in his 2013 State of the Union speech.
Obama said the economy is improving, although there is still more work to do.
“It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” he said in the address.
Obama urged bipartisanship in Congress as legislators hope to further reduce the federal deficit. He proposed reforming Medicare and closing tax and entitlement loopholes as ways of lowering the deficit without resorting to the sequester cuts of the fiscal cliff.
“The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another,” he said.
Obama chastised Congress for stalling on a bill that would offer cheaper mortgage refinancing to help boost the housing market.
“So what are we waiting for?” he asked. “Take a vote and send me that bill. Why would that be a partisan issue, helping folks refinance?”
The president also suggested that raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and making early-childhood education available to all children would benefit the economy in the long run. He stressed that none of his proposals would raise the deficit.
“It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” he said.
He highlighted science and energy fields as areas of particularly fast growth, and pointed out that the United States made $140 on every dollar it invested in mapping the human genome.
Speaking on another scientific topic, Obama urged Congress to take action against climate change, saying he would take executive action if legislators failed to promote clean energy and reduce pollution.
“Now, the good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth,” Obama said. “But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”
In a social-action call, Obama said it is time for comprehensive immigration reform that would strengthen border security, create a pathway to citizenship and cut bureaucratic red tape.
“Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away,” Obama said. “And America will be better for it.”
On foreign policy matters, Obama maintained that the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close. He announced plans to withdraw 34,000 troops this year and officially end the conflict at the end of next year, saying that al-Qaida is now far weaker than when the war began.
Obama ended on an emotional note, alluding to the Newtown massacre and fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago as he made his closing remarks. Many members of Congress wore green ribbons on their lapels in memory of the Sandy Hook victims.
Obama urged the nation to think of the votes Newtown victims — Pendleton and other victims of gun violence — could have cast.
“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country,” he said. “But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can -- to secure this nation, expand opportunity, uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”