WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to renew focus on the economy and reigniting a "rising, thriving middle class," calling for public spending on infrastructure and education while making an emotional demand that Congress act on gun control.
"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," Obama said at the end of his hourlong speech, the former congresswoman and other gun violence victims looking on from the gallery of the House of Representatives.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote," Obama said. "The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence — they deserve a simple vote."
Obama also announced the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year, about half the remaining force, proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour to bring millions out of poverty and vowed to address climate change.
"If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said, alluding to executive actions to curb pollution and spur a transition to sustainable energy sources.
Obama cited more job creation, a rising stock market and a rebounding housing market and 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."
But Obama soon acknowledged that millions of Americans remain out of work and wages remain stagnant.
"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 addressed the budget issue, saying Congress was halfway to a goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction but rejected a cuts-only approach. "Most Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity," Obama said, calling for ending tax loopholes that favor corporations and the rich.
Obama brimmed with the same confidence he showed during his inaugural speech last month. He defended the role of government and took on partisan tones, rebuking Republican "brinksmanship" and policies. His unstated message was that he won the election and Americans back his agenda. In reality, the country, like Congress, remains divided.
Democrats leapt to their feet at Obama's high points while stone-faced Republicans remained in their seats. But a number of Republicans stood when Obama said it was time to pass comprehensive immigration reform and when he said of North Korea's latest nuclear test, "provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further."
The middle class was also on the mind of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who delivered the Republican response and argued that government was an impediment to ordinary families. Portending the next clash in Congress, Rubio said Obama should "abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy."
Rubio, 41, has been cast as a new face of a GOP that has struggled with the country's changing demographics, and his focus on the middle class reflected the revamped message. "Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich," he said. "I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."
Like Rubio, Obama called for changes to social programs such as Medicare but stressed they should be "modest" and only in the context of a broad deficit-cutting deal that would include tax revenue and spending cuts.
Obama's prescriptions for growing jobs included $1 billion to create a network of 15 "manufacturing innovation institutes" across the country that would partner businesses, schools and government to develop manufacturing technologies to help U.S. companies and workers compete. He called for more investment in renewable energy and a $50 billion "fix it first" program to rebuild the nation's aging bridges and roads.
Obama, 51, also emphasized education, asking Congress to work with him to provide all low- and moderate-income children with quality preschool and said high schools should partner with colleges and employers on classes that meet needs in science, technology math and engineering.
Though the speech focused primarily on the economy, Obama heralded the return of troops from Afghanistan while conceding the threat of terrorist groups is evolving. He said he would engage Russia to seek further reductions in nuclear arsenals and devote more attention to the "rapidly growing threat from cyber attacks."
Addressing gun control, Obama invoked the school slayings in Connecticut two months ago and argued Americans are rallying around "common sense" reforms, including banning high-capacity ammunition clips and more background checks for gun buyers.
The gallery of the House of Representatives was marked with faces of the debate. More than 20 Democrats invited victims of gun violence as guests. Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011 and has left office to recover, was the guest of Sen. John McCain, and Rep. Ron Barber, who was injured with Giffords and now holds her seat. Also in attendance: the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old Chicago girl, who was killed after school two weeks ago — a week after she was in Washington for the inaugural.
The gun rights side was punctuated by rock guitarist Ted Nugent, a guest of Texas Republican Rep. Steve Stockman.
Obama also urged Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents of the United States as long as they "earn" that right through fines, learning English and other measures.
"Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants," he said.
Democrats also invited undocumented immigrants, including Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26, of Tampa, who graduated from Florida State University law school, but has not been admitted to the Florida Bar because he's not a U.S. citizen. Godinez-Samperio, who has a pending petition with the state Supreme Court, was a guest of Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.
Joining first lady Michelle Obama was Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old former farm worker who waited more than three hours to cast her vote in Miami-Dade in November.
The president said that when people have to wait hours "we are betraying our ideals" and announced a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.
"The American people demand it. And so does our democracy," said Obama, who closed with an appeal for unity.
"Well into our third century as a nation," he said, "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."
Obama will take to the road this week to amplify his job creation plans, with stops in Asheville, N.C., Atlanta and Chicago.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.