President Barack Obama has used his annual State of the Union address to outline his plan for growing U.S. jobs and making America more competitive in the global economy. The president also proposed a partial government spending freeze, to help reduce the deficit.
In his yearly speech to Congress and tens of millions of Americans watching on television, President Obama called for more U.S. investment in education, infrastructure and scientific innovation.
He said America needs to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.
“We have to make America the best place on earth to do business," said President Obama. "We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That is how our people will prosper. That is how we will win the future.”
Mr. Obama’s second State of the Union speech, before both houses of Congress, focused mostly on domestic issues, particularly the economy.
One seat in the House chamber was left empty, for Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is recovering after being shot in an assassination attempt on January 8th.
That shooting, in which six people were killed, set off a national discussion about the need for greater civility in American politics.
As a result, many Democratic and Republican lawmakers sat together during this year’s State of the Union address, instead of the usual practice of sitting on separate sides of the aisle.
In the speech, the president used some of his most optimistic language yet in describing the nation’s economic recovery.
“Now we are poised for progress," said Obama. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”
But Mr. Obama acknowledged that unemployment remains high and that Americans want their leaders to focus on creating jobs.
The president laid out an agenda for improving American competitiveness. It includes increased government spending to help boost research and development, especially in clean energy technologies.
He also called for new federal initiatives to improve American schools and colleges, as well as investments in upgrading the country’s infrastructure and reforming government.
In the Republican Party response, Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Mr. Obama continues to overspend.
“Depending on bureaucracy to foster innovation, competitiveness and wise consumer choices has never worked and it will not work now," said Representative Ryan. "We need to chart a new course.”
The president responded to Republican concerns about the federal deficit by proposing to freeze much of the government’s civilian spending at its current level for five years. He said the plan would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion, over 10 years.
In a statement issued before the speech, Speaker of the House John Boehner called the proposal “inadequate.”
In other areas, Mr. Obama said Washington should take on the contentious issue of reforming U.S. immigration policy.
“I know that debate will be difficult and take time," he said. "But tonight, let’s agree to make that effort. And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses and further enrich this nation.”
On foreign affairs, the president said America’s standing in the world has been restored.
Mr. Obama said the Iraq war is coming to an end, progress is being made toward eventually handing over responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghans, and the al-Qaida terror network is on the run.
“We have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: We will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you," said President Obama.
The president said the United States stands with the people of Tunisia in their democratic aspirations, and he saluted the recent peaceful vote for independence in South Sudan.
“Thousands lined up before dawn," said Obama. "People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: ‘This was a battlefield for most of my life,’ he said. ‘Now we want to be free.’”
Mr. Obama announced that he will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, late in March.
He also called on lawmakers to approve a free trade agreement with South Korea and said he will pursue similar pacts with Panama and Colombia.
There was no mention of the stalled Middle East peace process.
On Wednesday, President Obama will visit Wisconsin, where he will begin a campaign for the initiatives he outlined Tuesday night.