Obama State of the Union Refocuses Agenda on Jobs

PHOTO: John Boehner and Barack Obama
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Pursuing an aggressive and diverse early second-term agenda, President Obama turned his focus Tuesday night squarely to the economy, using his State of the Union address to unveil new government initiatives aimed at creating jobs.

The defining duty of the new Congress and new administration is to "reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class," Obama said Tuesday night from the House chamber.

"That must be the North Star that guides our efforts," he said.

Obama's proposals had a familiar ring, including re-packaged economic ideas but also offering several bold new measures aimed at boosting the middle class.

None of the proposals would add to the deficit "by a single dime," Obama pledged, with costs offset by savings carved out in the budget and from money saved from ending two wars.

"It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," Obama said.

For the first time as president, Obama called for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour by 2015. He proposed to ensure future increases by indexing the minimum wage to inflation.

He proposed a national goal of universal pre-school education, an effort to help states provide tens of thousands of low- to middle-income four-year-old children access to quality public education from an earlier age.

And, to heal the nation's crumbling roads and bridges, Obama offered a $50 billion "fix it first" infrastructure program that would prioritize repair of existing structures before building new ones.

"Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation," 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?"

Answers to those questions, the president suggested, include redoubling investments in clean energy technologies -- a step which he said would both benefit the environment and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," he said.

He called for doubling the amount of renewable electricity generation in the U.S. by 2020, and announced an energy version of his "Race to the Top" education program that would give states grants for the best energy efficiency programs.

Related: 7 Things Obama Says at Every State of the Union

In tandem with his economic focus, Obama announced the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this time next year, cutting in half the current force and marking a quickened pace for the final exit of U.S. combat forces by a 2014 deadline.

There are currently 66,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. Obama has vowed to bring nearly all of them home by the end of next year, though a small contingent will likely remain to train Afghan forces and assist counterterrorism operations, officials have said.

Obama touched briefly on his recently-unveiled proposals to overhaul the nation's immigration system, expand rights for gay and lesbian Americans and curb an epidemic of gun violence.

With dozens of victims of gun violence looking on from the House gallery, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and families of victims from shootings at Newtown, Conn., Oak Creek, Wisc., and Aurora, Colo., Obama made an emotional plea for an up-or-down vote on his gun control plan.

"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said of proposed restrictions on assault-style weapons and high capacity magazines, and enhanced background checks, among other measures.

"If you want to vote no, that's your choice," he said. "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."

Read More: President Obama's Past State of the Union Promises

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