WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Jobs, the economy and a "thriving middle class" highlighted a populist agenda U.S. President Obama offered in the first State of the Union of his second term.
"Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report," Obama said Tuesday in his address to a joint session of Congress. "After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over 6 million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in 20. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before."
"The state of our union is strong," he said.
Recognizing it wasn't the first time America debated on how to reduce gun violence, Obama said, "But this time is different."
Legislation that would prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals, banning military-style weapons and large capacity magazines "deserve a vote," Obama said.
"If you want to vote no, that's your choice," Obama said. "But these proposals deserve a vote."
In the audience were relatives of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is recuperating from a bullet wound to the head from a shooting spree in 2011.
Members of the House and Senate wore green ribbons to memorialize the Newtown, Conn., victims.
The victims of gun violence in Newtown, Aurora, Colo., and elsewhere "deserve a simple vote," Obama said.
Obama also announced that, during the next year, 34,000 more U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan and "by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over."
"Beyond 2014, America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change," he said, saying negotiations an agreement with the Afghan government focused on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and counterterrorism efforts that allow the United States to pursue the remnants of al-Qaida and their affiliates."
Turning to deficit reduction, Obama said most Americans across all political stripes know "we can cut our way to prosperity."
Concerning Medicare, Obama said he was prepared to enact reforms that would achieve the same amount of healthcare savings as proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. The Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of healthcare costs, he said.
His reforms go further, he said, maintaining the liberal themes he spoke of during his inauguration address.
"We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors" and reduce costs by changing the way the government pays for Medicare.
He said he was open to other reform suggestions as long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement.
"Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep," he said, "but we must keep the promises we've already made."
He said he wouldn't ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder all of the deficit reduction burden "while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful."
To hit the rest of the deficit reduction target, "we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected."
"[Why] would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? How does that promote growth?"
Now is the best time for achieve bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and lowers the deficit, he said.
"The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can't pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America."
He said he recognizes that tax reform and entitlement reform won't be easy politically for either party.
"None of us will get 100 percent of what we want," he said. "But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans. So let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future."
"But let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," he said. "A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: 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?"
He asked offered proposals "that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. ... It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
He also touched on several themes he discussed while on the campaign stump, including offering incentives for businesses that hire Americans.
"Let's put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in rundown neighborhoods," Obama said. "And this year, my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet," working with local leaders, offering tax credits to businesses and working to strengthen families "by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood, because what makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child; it's having the courage to raise one."
Obama also announced that this year three more manufacturing hubs where businesses partner with the departments of defense and energy "to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs."
He said he will ask Congress to help create a network of 15 hubs and "guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America."
He urged Congress not to cut investments in science and innovation, saying: "Now is not the time to gut job-creating investments in science and innovation. ... And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy."
The nation is "finally poised" to control its energy future, Obama said, noting the United States is producing more oil at home now than it has in 15 years and doubled the distance our cars travel on a gallon of gas.
"But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change," Obama said.
"But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," Obama said. "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."
Much of the country's new-found energy is from lands and waters on public-owned lands, Obama said.
"So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good," he said. "I'm also issuing a new goal for America: Let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. We'll work with the states to do it."
Noting the company executives would rather locate in a country with a good infrastructure, Obama proposed a "Fix-It-First" program that would employ people to work as soon as possible on the most urgent infrastructure repairs across the country.
"And to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden, I'm also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most," such as ports, pipelines and schools. "Let's prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let's start right away."
He asked Congress to pass a bill that would give responsible homeowners the chance refinance at today's rates.
On education, Obama proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to all children.
"Every $1 we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on," he said.
All students need an opportunity like the students attending schools like P-Tech in New York, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York and IBM, where students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.
He announced a new challenge to redesign America's high schools "so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy."
Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, Obama said as he asked Congress to change the Higher Education Act "so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid."
On Wednesday, his administration will release a new "College Scorecard" that parents and students can use to compare schools based "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck."
The economy grows "when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants," Obama said, turning to immigration reform.
"Real reform means strong border security ... establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship ... [and] fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy," Obama said, noting that bipartisan groups in both chambers were working to draft a bill.
"In other words, we know what needs to be done," Obama said. "Now let's get this done."
He used his address to encourage the Republican-led House to pass Violence Against Women Act, which passed the Senate Tuesday.
"And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year," Obama said.
In calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour, Obama said, "Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty."
He called for tying the minimum wage to the cost of living, a concept on which he and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, agreed.
Even though al-Qaida is "a shadow of its former self," new al-Qaida affiliates and extremist groups are evolving. But that doesn't mean sending U.S. troops abroad. Rather, it means helping countries such as Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who "take the fight to terrorists."
While his administration has kept Congress informed of its terrorism fighting efforts, "I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way," Obama said.
"So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world," he said.
Iran and North Korea must be addressed as well.
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations," he said. "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."
The leaders of Iran also must recognize it's time for a diplomatic solution because a coalition of countries demand it and "we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
America must also face the growing threat from cyberattacks, he said, noting he signed an executive order to strengthen cyberdefenses by increasing information sharing and developing standards to protect national security, our jobs, and our privacy.
He called on Congress to act by passing legislation that would give the federal government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.
On trade, Obama said he will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union "because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."
He said the United States will join its allies to eradicate extreme poverty in the most impoverished parts of the world during in the next two decades.
"Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change," Obama said.
In defending freedom, the United States "will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia," he said.
"In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy," he said. "The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change ... but we can and will insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people."
The United States will keep the pressure on the Syrian regime that has killed its own people and support opposition leaders who respect the rights of every Syrian, the president said.
"And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace," he said.
Foreign policy depends on courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk, he said, diplomats, intelligence officers and the military.
"As long as I'm commander in chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world, "he said by investing in new capabilities while reducing waste and wartime spending.
"We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families -- gay and straight," Obama said. "We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat."
He pledged to "keep faith with our veterans" by investing in care, including mental healthcare, for the wounded, supporting military families and giving veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities they earned.
But, everyone must do his part to ensure "our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote," Obama said.
He announced a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America that will be led by two long-time experts in the field who recently served as the top attorneys for his and Romney's campaigns.
"We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it," Obama said. "And so does our democracy."
"Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I've outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government."
As Americans, every one shares one title, Obama said:
"We are citizens."
"[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."