Feb. 12, 2013— -- President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address on Tuesday to call for new programs to bolster the middle class and create jobs while pressuring Congress to pass key items of his ambitious second-term agenda.
But the most powerful moment of the speech came when Obama implored lawmakers to take up "common sense" gun-control measures like expanded background checks and a ban on high-powered "assault weapons" and high-capacity magazines.
"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote," the president said. "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."
Obama made these comments with nearly four dozen victims of gun violence and their families in attendance, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband Mark Kelly. In response, scores of lawmakers rose to their feet during a crescendo of applause.
"They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote. They deserve a vote," Obama said. "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote."
The president's appeal may have sparked a visceral response, but gun control measures likely still face an uphill climb in Congress, where Republicans and several moderate Democrats voiced wariness or outright opposition to new gun laws.
Still, Obama exhorted lawmakers that should not stop those measures from being brought up.
"This time, it's different," he said.
Obama will also have to deal with a deeply divided Congress in the coming months on other central issues of his agenda, such as a tax-reform plan that includes rate hikes on upper-income earners and the automatic $85 billion in "sequester" spending cuts that slash all areas of the federal budget.
Obama confronted Republicans on both of these items. He called on Congress to avoid the "sequester" cuts. And he urged bipartisan action on a broad agreement on higher taxes for the wealthy, spending reductions and modest changes to entitlement programs.
But he also cautioned that deficit-reduction alone wouldn't spark job growth and increased economic activity.
"Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda," he said. "But let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan."
Obama did propose several new initiatives designed to boost the economy, including raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour, a $50 billion infrastructure-repair effort, universal pre-school for four-year-olds and plans to grow clean energy and manufacturing.
"Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," he said. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
Obama also urged Congress to avoid the habits of past years, when the nation came close to enduring a government shutdown and a default on its debt while lawmakers could not agree on a deficit-reduction package.
"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."
The president did touch on one agenda item that engendered more cooperation than others: comprehensive immigration reform. The president once again outlined his principles for reform, including tighter border security and an earned pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Obama also lauded bipartisan action in the House and the Senate toward crafting a bill and he urged lawmakers to act swiftly.
"Now let's get this done," he said. "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away."