* A new focus on the economy in State of the Union speech
* Seeks a rise in minimum wage, spending on infrastructure
* Obama says 34,000 troops to return from Afghanistan
* Let free enterprise work, Republican Rubio urges
By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, Feb 12 U.S. President Barack Obama
challenged a divided Congress on Tuesday to raise the minimum
wage and make government work for "the many" in a State of the
Union speech focused on economic fairness for the middle class
as the Democrat takes a more assertive tack in his second term.
Looking to use momentum from his re-election victory last
November, Obama vowed to turn much of his attention toward
economic troubles like the 7.9 percent unemployment rate, an
issue that dogged his first four years as president.
While he offered few concessions to Republican demands for
spending cuts, Obama backed higher taxes for the wealthy and a
$50 billion spending plan to create jobs by rebuilding degraded
roads and bridges.
It was the second time in a few weeks that Obama has used a
major occasion to show a new, bolder side, coming after his
inaugural speech in January when he offered a strong defense of
gay rights and put climate change back on the agenda.
Obama on Tuesday outlined plans to withdraw 34,000 of the
66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the next year and called
anew for action on immigration reform at home.
In the most emotional moment of the hour-long speech,
Obama urged Congress to ban assault weapons and take other gun
control measures. Victims of recent shootings like the school
massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, looked on, some choking back
But the central emphasis of his speech was to "build new
ladders of opportunity" for the middle class.
"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government
works on behalf of the many, and not just the few," Obama told
hundreds of lawmakers, Cabinet officials and dignitaries
gathered before him in the well of the House of Representatives.
His address to a joint session of Congress came in the midst
of yet another bitter battle with Republicans over taxes and
spending, and this tussle cast a heavy shadow over his
Even as Obama spoke, House Speaker John Boehner, the top
Republican in Congress, accused him of offering "little more
than the same stimulus policies that have failed to fix our
economy and put Americans back to work."
Boehner's comments came in a statement that was issued while
Obama was still delivering his address and the speaker was
sitting behind him, at times scowling. "The president had an
opportunity to offer a solution tonight and he let it slip by,"
Boehner said in his statement.
NARROW WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
The clock is now ticking on Obama. He has about a year to
get his legislative priorities enacted before Americans shift
attention to the 2014 congressional elections.
Obama reserved his toughest words to urge a resolution to a
festering budget battle that will result in automatic, deep
spending cuts known as "sequestration" at the end of the month
unless a deal can be reached.
Americans, he said, do not expect government to solve every
problem, "but they do expect us to put the nation's interests
before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromises
where we can."
Many of his proposals may face a difficult path getting
through Congress. He proposed raising the U.S. minimum wage for
workers from $7.25 to $9 an hour. Republicans typically oppose
increases in the minimum wage out of worry it will prompt
businesses to fire workers.
Some anecdotal evidence supports their concern.
Monica Smith, 36, of Tupelo, Mississippi, said: "With us
being in Mississippi, what is a $9 minimum wage going to do to
small companies in Mississippi? I don't know how some of these
small companies could afford it."
Obama backed a $50 billion program to fund infrastructure
rebuilding projects like fixing aging bridges, but many
Republicans are adamantly against such stimulative government
spending after Obama's first-term $787 billion stimulus did not
lead to a dramatic reversal in the unemployment rate.
"Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't
find full-time employment," he said. "Corporate profits have
rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages
and incomes have barely budged."
Obama said that to offset the cuts he would like to raise
$800 billion in revenue by eliminating tax loopholes enjoyed
mostly by the wealthiest Americans.
It is a proposal Boehner backed before he reluctantly agreed
instead to higher income tax rates on the richest to avert a
fiscal crisis at the end of 2012. Republicans are in no mood for
more tax increases and want spending cuts instead.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star who
could run for president in 2016, accused Obama of being too fond
of big government.
"I hope the president will abandon his obsession with
raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in
our economy," Rubio said in the formal Republican response to
Bringing his speech to an emotional end, Obama called on
Congress to vote on measures to expand background checks,
prevent gun trafficking, ban assault weapons and limit the size
of ammunition magazines, saying victims deserved to have their
elected officials take up the proposals.
"They deserve a vote," Obama said, calling out the names of
communities scarred by massacres, Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek,
Tucson, Blacksburg. "They deserve a vote."
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have been trying to build
public support for gun control after 20 children were shot in
their school in Newtown, a day Obama has described as the worst
of his presidency.
But they face an uphill battle against a powerful pro-gun
lobby and a strong U.S. tradition of hunting and gun ownership.
The right to bear arms is guaranteed to Americans in the U.S.
Obama urged lawmakers to approve over the next few months an
overhaul of immigration laws to permit a pathway to citizenship
for some 11 million illegal immigrants. Republicans who saw
Hispanics overwhelmingly vote for Obama over Republican
challenger Mitt Romney last November are more open to new
immigration rules but want stronger border security first.
In a nod to Republican worries over what they see as
out-of-control government spending on entitlement programs for
the elderly and poor, Obama said he would back efforts to reduce
healthcare spending by the same amount over a decade as proposed
by a bipartisan commission whose recommendations he had
Saying the 12 hottest years on record have taken place in
the last 15, Obama issued an ultimatum to Congress on climate
change. He vowed to take action to confront climate change
through presidential executive orders unless Congress enacts
While heavily focused on domestic policies, Obama's speech
had some crucial foreign policy elements.
He outlined steps to unwind U.S. involvement in the
unpopular 11-year-old Afghanistan war but gave no details on
what sort of American presence might remain after 2014 when the
U.S. withdrawal is supposed to be complete.
Obama's speech came a day after North Korea conducted its
third underground test of a nuclear device in response to what
it called U.S. hostility.
"Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only
isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our
own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in
response to these threats," he said.
Obama said the United States would enter into negotiations
with the European Union aimed at reaching a transatlantic free