Obama Calls For Strengthening The Middle Class

The White House seemed surprised last month when President Obama's inaugural address was characterized in some quarters as a liberal manifesto. So Tuesday night's State of the Union speech was firmly grounded in the bread-and-butter pocketbook issues facing the middle class.

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You can tell what the president had as his top priority in last night's State of the Union address by where he'll be this morning: an auto parts factory in North Carolina, highlighting his plan to encourage more manufacturing in America. Mr. Obama also called for a higher minimum wage and universal preschool education as part of a broader agenda to strengthen the middle class.

NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The White House seemed surprised that last month's inaugural address was characterized in some quarters as a liberal manifesto. So last night's State of the Union speech was firmly grounded in the bread-and-butter pocketbook issues facing the middle class.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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 they need to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?

HORSLEY: Obama urged Congress not to jeopardize the economic recovery by allowing automatic government spending cuts to take effect next month. He said while reducing the deficit is important, it's not by itself an economic plan.

Some of the plans the president spelled out last night were familiar, recycled from previous years: tax reform, institutes for manufacturing, increased spending on public works. New proposals include rewards for high schools that offer real-world job training, and a plan to offer every four-year-old high-quality preschool.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: We know this works. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our own children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance.

HORSLEY: The president also called for raising the federal minimum wage, so as to match the buying power the wage had in the Reagan administration. He also says the minimum wage should rise automatically, along with the cost of living.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: Let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

HORSLEY: Most of the proposals did not come with specific price tags attached. But Obama insists his plans would not add to the deficit, not even by a dime.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.

HORSLEY: As usual, foreign policy took a backseat in the address. The president confirmed that about half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan will withdraw this year, with most of the rest leaving in 2014. He also promised to do what's necessary to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, a point he'll underscore when he visits Israel next month.

Closer to home, the president said he's forming a commission to address the long lines that plagued voting last November. And even in the midst of an oil and gas boom, he said America must continue to pursue cleaner forms of energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.

HORSLEY: If Congress refuses to act on greenhouse gases, the president says he will. That could mean new EPA regulations on existing power plants.

Congressional action seems more likely in the area of immigration, in part because of Republican losses among Latino voters last fall. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who gave the Republican response last night, is part of a bipartisan group of senators working to draft a new immigration law. Outside of immigration, though, Rubio and the president don't agree on much.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back. More government isn't going to create more opportunities. It's going to limit them. And more government isn't going to inspire new ideas, new businesses and new private sector jobs. It's going to create uncertainty.

HORSLEY: The emotional climax of the president speech's came when he addressed gun violence. There were dozens of people in the audience who'd been victims of gunfire. Obama says lawmakers owe it to them to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

OBAMA: The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.

HORSLEY: On this and other issues, the president seems confident that a majority of Americans agree with him, even if Congressional Republicans and their voters do not. He argues those Republicans should vote no if they want, but should also allow the proposals to come to the floor for a vote. Disagreement is OK, he seems to suggest. Dysfunction and stalemate are not.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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