Uncompromising and politically emboldened, President Barack Obama urged a deeply divided Congress Tuesday night to embrace his plans to use government money to create jobs and strengthen the nation’s middle class. He declared Republican ideas for reducing the deficit “even worse” than the unpalatable deals Washington had to stomach during his first term.
In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Obama conceded economic revival is an “unfinished task,” but he claimed clear progress and said he prepared to build on it as he embarks on four more years in office.
“We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong,” Obama said in an hour-long address to a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.
Yet with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, the economy remains a vulnerability for Obama and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.
Dave Bohnenblust, chairman of the McPherson County Republicans, said Obama gave a good speech, but he doubted the president’s sincerity on the issues.
“I question how serious he is. He obviously is concerned about the sequester plan that is coming in March,” Bohnenblust said. “He said he wants to implement Simpson Bowles, but he has ignored it for three years. Why does he want to address it now?”
Bohnenblust said if the president is serious about jobs, he could create 100,000 new jobs for the economy overnight if he would allow the Keystone pipeline to move forward.
Bohnenblust said he was further disappointed because he thought the president did not adequately address the deficit.
“He talked about getting the budget in order and said none of his programs will increase the deficit. He wants to do these huge programs like addressing world hunger and world peace, but he has the audacity to say they will not increase the deficit.”
Ryon Carey, treasurer of the McPherson County Democrats, said the president laid out America’s challenges and the actions that need to be taken to make America even better.
Among several of the initiatives Ryon praised were the president’s call for the creation of more high-skill manufacturing jobs in the U.S.; a push for the use of more green energy and a proposed increase of the minimum wage.
Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2007, and administration officials said the increase would strengthen purchasing power. The president also wants Congress to approve automatic increases in the wage to keep pace with inflation.
Page 2 of 3 - Looking for common ground anywhere he could find it, Obama framed his proposal to boost the minimum wage by pointing out that even his GOP presidential rival liked the idea. He said, “Here's an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”
Carey said he thought putting more money in the hands of low-income workers would boost the economy.
Lindsborg Democrat and political science professor at Bethany College Joyce Pigge echoed Carey’s support of a minimum wage increase.
Pigge said those full-time workers making minimum wage and some above minimum wage have difficulty rising above the poverty level.
“If you make the earning potential greater for someone making minimum wage or somewhat above minimum wage, the money they spend really increases,” she said.
Even when those in poverty do not receive assistance directly from the government, they drain the economy in other ways as they must seek assistance from churches or food banks, Pigge said.
Increasing the minimum wage would allow those workers to provide for themselves.
Bohnenblust said he did not support an increase in the minimum wage. He said it was a poor idea to force employers to pay more for workers when so many Americans are still unemployed.
In specific proposals for shoring up the economy in his second term, an assertive Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation’s roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit “by a single dime” although he didn't explain how he would pay for his programs or how much they would cost.
In the Republican response to Obama’s address, rising GOP star Marco Rubio of Florida came right back at the president, saying his solution “to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”
Sen. Rubio, in prepared remarks, said presidents of both parties have recognized that the free enterprise system brings middle-class prosperity.
“But President Obama?” Rubio said. “He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”
Jobs and growth dominated Obama’s address. Many elements of his economic blueprint were repacked proposals from his first term that failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
He did reiterate his willingness to tackle entitlement changes, particularly on Medicare, though he has ruled out increasing the eligibility age for the popular benefit program for seniors.
Page 3 of 3 - Republicans are ardently opposed to Obama's calls for legislating more tax revenue to reduce the deficit and offset broad the automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — that are to take effect March 1. The president accused GOP lawmakers of shifting the cuts from defense to programs that would help the middle class and elderly, as well as those supporting education and job training.
“That idea is even worse,” he said.
Obama broke little new ground on two agenda items he has pushed vigorously since winning re-election: overhauling the nation’s fractured immigration laws and enacting tougher gun control measures in the wake of the horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn. Yet he pressed for urgency on both, calling on Congress to send him an immigration bill “in the next few months” and insisting lawmakers hold votes on his gun proposals.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. “If you want to vote no, that's your choice.”
Pigge praised the president for calling on Congress to at least allow a vote on his gun proposals.
Carey, however, doubted if all the president’s plans would pass.
“You know universal background checks will probably become law,” Carey said. “I think he will have other limited success on the large capacity magazines. I don’t think he has any chance on an assault weapons ban.”
Dave Bohnenblust said he did not think he could get behind the president’s gun proposals.
“I think it still feels they are taking gun rights from law abiding citizens and not dealing with the real problems,” he said. “A lot of places that have restrictive gun laws like Chicago have the highest gun crime rates. How does it make sense to do that on a national basis? It sounds good, but I think it could be a political move.”
Numerous lawmakers wore green lapel ribbons in memory of those killed in the December shootings in Connecticut. Among those watching in the House gallery: the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed recently in a park just a mile from the president's home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.
Obama also renewed his calls for infrastructure spending, investments he sought repeatedly during his first term with little support from Republicans. He pressed lawmakers to approve a $50 billion "fix it first" program that would address the most urgent infrastructure needs.