President Barack Obama used the first State of the Union address of his second term to try to breathe new life into his economic agenda, reviving modest measures to spur growth and trying to create fresh momentum in the all-but-stagnant talks over deficit reduction.
Entering his fifth year presiding over a flagging economy, the president on Tuesday declared the restoration of a strong middle class "our unfinished task" and called on a deeply divided Congress to find "reasonable compromise" to solve the nation's lingering fiscal ills.
The president renewed a series of proposals to boost U.S. manufacturing, aid struggling homeowners and invest in infrastructure. He proposed raising the minimum wage and vowed to seek a deficit reduction deal that balances taxes increases with changes to entitlements programs.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class," Obama told lawmakers gathered in the House chamber.
The hourlong speech largely abandoned the high, hopeful tone and delivery of the president's inaugural address last month, taking instead a wonkier and aggressive turn toward the next fight facing Washington: a standoff over the federal budget.
Obama and Republicans in Congress are hurtling toward another clash over deep spending cuts, known as sequestration, scheduled to take effect March 1. The cuts, which economists think could further stall economic growth, were passed as a way to force lawmakers to compromise on a less blunt approach to reducing the nation's $16 trillion debt. Obama suggested he would go further than he has in the past toward making changes to Medicare to curb spending, although he was not specific.
"I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement," Obama said. "Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep, but we must keep the promises we've already made."
Lawmakers from Maryland are particularly concerned about across-the-board spending cuts that would kick in next month if Congress does not act. Economists have said those cuts could have a profound impact in the state, home to a high share of federal employees and contractors.
"Particularly for our region, we need a substitute for these across-the-board, mindless sequestration cuts," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview. "Part of it is to bring in revenue by closing loopholes, but another part is you've got reduce spending in a more selective way."
Baltimore County Rep. John Sarbanes called the president's approach to dealing with sequestration "reasonable," arguing that the broad principles hewed closely to the proposal outlined by the 2010 bipartisan fiscal panel known to many as the Simpson-Bowles commission.
"We look for savings where we can, in a prudent way that does not negatively impact important investments that we need to make," the Democrat said.
Republicans were sharply critical of the address. Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County lawmaker and the last Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, said he was disappointed the speech focused on climate change and gun control instead of the national deficit.
"Like so many of President Obama's other lofty speeches, his words do not match his actions," Harris said in a statement. "Four straight trillion-dollar deficits under the president's watch clearly show we have a spending problem."
Obama's annual addresses to Congress chronicle the way this president, who once vowed to unite Washington, has scaled back his legislative ambitions. In 2009, the newly elected president outlined a raft of government responses to the economic "reckoning" facing the country. "The time to take charge of our future is here," he declared.
By 2012, after a year of lurching from one fight to another with a GOP-led House of Representatives and with a re-election on the horizon, Obama offered only piecemeal executive orders and tougher talk, vowing to "fight obstruction with action."
His speech Tuesday continued in that realpolitik mode, with an eye on his legacy and a cautious approach to dealing with a Congress that appears to be slowly warming to some of his agenda. Obama last month laid out his markers on two of his top priorities — gun control measures and immigration — and lawmakers already are working on legislation behind the scenes.
Obama appeared careful not to trip up negotiations with heated rhetoric Tuesday, making emotional, but brief, references to both gun violence and immigration reform.
Still, as he stepped into the House chamber, Obama was surrounded by reminders of the human element and the political difficulties behind his legislative agenda. Democratic lawmakers brought victims of gun violence, including some of those affected by the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the impetus for the gun control push.
Republicans, too, issued invitations that underscored their positions. Natalie Hammond, a Newtown, Conn., teacher who was injured in the Sandy Hook shooting, found herself in the same audience as Ted Nugent, the rocker and gun enthusiast who declared he'd be "dead or in jail" if Obama won a second term.
First Lady Michelle Obama sat with the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager who was shot and killed just days after she traveled to Washington for the president's inauguration and who has become a symbol of the need for tougher gun laws.
Although heavy on domestic aims, Obama also used this remarks to tout progress on his foreign policy agenda. He announced plans to halve the number of troops serving in Afghanistan by February.
Included in a litany of measures Obama asked Congress to pass this year was the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure sponsored by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to expand the landmark 1963 Equal Pay Act that prohibits wage discrimination based on gender. The proposal has repeatedly failed to capture momentum on Capitol Hill and, despite Obama's mention, it is unlikely to do so again this year.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun