WASHINGTON, February 13 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama laid out an ambitious legislative vision in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, calling for a raft of measures to bolster the ranks of America’s middle class and urgently address issues like climate change and gun control.
In his speech to the US Congress and top officials Tuesday evening, Obama also said the United States would work with Russia to reduce the countries’ nuclear arsenals and would relentlessly pursue al-Qaida’s leadership while ending US military operations in Afghanistan.
But the bulk of his speech touched on measures to revitalize the US economy through reforms in education, energy and tax policy aimed at broadening economic opportunities for Americans.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country—the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” Obama said.
Obama repeated his endorsement of a “balanced approach” of budget cuts and tax increases on wealthier Americans to get the nation’s finances in order.
But he also announced proposals to launch a public works program to restore the United States’ aging infrastructure, raise the national minimum wage, create so-called “manufacturing hubs” in regions hit hard during the economic downturn, and “make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said. “But today, fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”
Obama also called for economic measures that would simultaneously address climate change, warning that if Congress is unwilling “to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution” to pressing environmental issues, he is willing to act unilaterally.
“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,” he said.
The American president also gave a nod to the development of domestic oil and gas projects, saying his administration would “keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
His administration faces a looming decision this year on whether to allow the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada through several US states. Environmentalists fiercely oppose the project, while proponents say it will bring much-needed jobs to a reeling US economy and boost America’s energy independence.
Obama touched on a handful of national security issues in his speech as well, saying that 34,000 US troops would come home from Afghanistan this year as the United States prepares to complete its withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014.
“This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he said.
Washington is in talks with the Afghan government on “training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaida and their affiliates,” Obama said.
Obama also said the United States would “do what is necessary” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while working with Moscow to slash nuclear arsenals.
“We will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands—because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead,” he said.
The Obama administration is reportedly seeking to negotiate an informal agreement with the Kremlin to reduce each country’s strategic nuclear arsenal to between 1,000 and 1,100 deployed warheads, several hundred fewer than stipulated by the bilateral New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that came into force in 2011.
Obama concluded his speech with a plea to Congress to enact gun control laws two months after a lone gunman killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
He repeated his call for stricter background checks for people who buy guns and laws that would limit the number of high-powered weapons on America’s streets.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” Obama said to the lawmakers in the audience. “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.”
John Boehner, leader of the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives that is largely hostile to federal gun control laws, stood and applauded as Obama said the victims of gun violence in the United States “deserve” a vote on the issue.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who delivered his party’s critical response to the speech, offered only a brief comment on gun control.
The country, Rubio said, “must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country” without "undermining the 2nd Amendment” of the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to “keep and bear arms.”