Advancing the themes that led to his re-election victory, President Obama billed himself as, above all, a relentless advocate of the middle class in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and urged congressional Republicans to work with him rather than consistently oppose his initiatives.
Obama's hour-long speech came on a day that illustrated how volatile the domestic and world situations can be, and how a president's agenda can be dramatically altered by circumstances, no matter what he intends. Among Tuesday's news events were reports of a new North Korean nuclear test, a manhunt to capture a rogue cop in California, and speculation about a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who announced that he is resigning because of bad health. The Obama administration also announced that the president will halve the current U.S. force in Afghanistan--pulling out 34,000 troops--within the next year.
Echoing President John F. Kennedy's embrace of generational change, Obama portrayed the main challenge of his second term as a battle between the status quo and his desire to complete the nation's "unfinished business" in a variety of areas, from strengthening the economy and creating jobs to overhauling the immigration laws and,in his most impassioned plea of the evening, controlling the sale of guns.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of American's economic growth--a rising, thriving middle class," Obama told a joint session of Congress. "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, no matter what you look like, or who you love."
Obama also said, "It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation."
He said, " It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
Obama urged Congress to enact measures to combat climate change but, in a stark warning, declared that, "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. 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."
Obama's speech also included these ideas, most of which he has proposed before and which amount to something of a liberal manifesto:
--Urging congressional passage of a deficit-reduction package that includes both tax increases and spending cuts.
--Calling for tax reform "that helps small businesses," increases taxes on billionaires, and lowers rates on businesses that create jobs in the United States.
--Increasing federal investments in education, manufacturing, and infrastructure such as bridges and roads.
--Calling for a ban on military-style assault weapons and urging support for universal background checks for would-be gun purchasers.
--Backing an immigration-law overhaul that would create a "path to citizenship" for millions of illegal immigrants.
--Increasing federal investment in science and "innovation."
--Endorsing a raise in the federal minimum wage.
--Proposing to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal, including a pledge to reduce the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the United States.
--Plannings to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement with the European Union.
--Pledging to work with other countries to fight terrorism.
Obama closed his address with an emotional appeal for gun control. Referring to the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. in December, he said gun control has become an urgent priority "because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.