Obama stakes second term on progressive goals
President Barack Obama staked his second term on an ambitious bid to mend America, pledging to narrow inequality, reignite the economy, fight gun crime and fix immigration.
Anchoring his annual State of the Union address on domestic priorities, Obama dealt only in passing with churning foreign policy crises, including North Korea's recent nuclear test and Iran's controversial atomic program.
Closing in on his goal of ending an era of draining US wars abroad, Obama announced plans to halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, while vowing that the global pursuit of terror would go on.
He also struck a note of optimism in counseling middle class Americans still gripped by economic angst.
"Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," Obama said, in a speech punctuated by 23 standing ovations in the House of Representatives.
The address, before a huge national audience, was Obama's best chance to sell his second-term plans to a divided nation and to stave off the domestic lame duck status all second-term presidents dread.
Obama called for fixing the gaping budget deficit, but described billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts due March 1 as "a really bad idea."
In an address steeped in progressive ideology, he slammed Republican ideas of adjusting retirement benefits and health care for seniors as "even worse."
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Obama said, seeking to turn election vows that everyone should get a "fair shot" into reality.
Obama's message was unapologetically tailored to a domestic American audience, as he insisted that government investment must bankroll jobs growth.
"He will be about revitalizing the middle class and (easing) a sense of insecurity that has swept through much of the nation," said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
But Republicans wasted no time in trying to thwart Obama's plans.
"President Obama? He believes ... that the economic downturn happened because our government didn't tax enough, spend enough and control enough," said rising star Senator Marco Rubio, giving the Republican rebuttal speech.
"As you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."
Obama's reflex instinct for compromise has ebbed after years of partisan warfare.
Now he seems intent on leveraging political capital won with his re-election to force his will in Congress, banking on the idea that Republicans will pay the price for standing in the way of ideas voters support.
Obama was at his most passionate when making the case for measures to stem gun violence, following the shocking massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
"If you want to vote no, that's your choice," he cried, drawing lawmakers to their feet in an emotional tribute to victims of gun crime.
"These proposals deserve a vote."
Looking on in the House gallery were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager killed in a random shooting not far from the president's Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
In a keenly awaited move, Obama announced the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
"This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over," he said.
In a brief diversion abroad, Obama said North Korea's nuclear test Tuesday would only further its isolation, and promised to stand by Asian allies, strengthen missile defense and lead the world in a firm response.
Obama said "Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution," ahead of new talks with world powers this month on Tehran's nuclear program, which Western nations and Israel believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons but Iran defends as entirely peaceful.
Arguing Al-Qaeda was a "shadow" of its former self, Obama pledged to help nations like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and to aid allies like France, which is fighting extremists in Mali.
Breaking new ground, Obama announced the start of formal talks between the United States and the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade pact and previewed a new plan to thwart cyberattacks on US infrastructure.
Despite criticism he ignored the slaughter of nearly 70,000 people in Syria, Obama pledged to keep up pressure on Bashar al-Assad's regime and said he would stand firm in defense of Israel, which he will visit next month.
He also tried to shame Congress into action on climate change.
"We can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late," Obama said.
Domestically, Obama said he wanted a bill to reform the broken immigration system to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship within months -- the one area where bipartisan compromise seems likely.
Back in campaign mode, Obama will travel to North Carolina, Georgia and his hometown of Chicago to sell his speech this week.