Obama to talk Afghan withdrawals and jobs in key address
President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address Tuesday to tell Americans he will halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year and propose a second term job creation agenda.
He will also likely respond to a demand for attention from North Korea, which interrupted the rollout of his showpiece annual speech by igniting another overseas crisis with its underground nuclear test.
Less than a month into his second term, the president will arrive in the well of the House of Representatives to ringing cheers and traditional pageantry, before a huge national television audience -- at 9:00 pm (0200 GMT).
He is expected to pack his speech with ideas to create jobs, partly through investments in government-funded infrastructure projects, and with initiatives on immigration reform, gun control and clean energy.
The speech will mark the Democrat's best chance to build support for his proposals after his November election victory, as he seeks to delay the domestic lame duck status that eventually hobbles all second term presidents.
It will complement the soaring defense of progressive politics and equality of opportunity which anchored his inaugural address last month, and seek to find a way to turn lofty ideology into a workable legislative program.
Obama, in line with his core mission of ending a draining decade of foreign land wars, will announce the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
There were no immediate details of how quickly the drawdown would take place. But a senior Pentagon official told AFP it would be tied to the fighting season in Afghanistan, which runs into the fall.
"The approach you'll hear from the president tonight reflects the best military advice from commanders in the Pentagon and in the field."
With characteristic timing, North Korea thrust itself back into the US political debate Tuesday by detonating its third nuclear test, and some Republicans immediately jabbed Obama over policy towards the Stalinist state.
The test complicated the case the president planned to make for new cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, which has been at the core of his political career.
Howard "Buck" McKeon, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services committee, said the test proved that such reductions could endanger American national security.
"It is also unfortunate that on the same day the President of the United States plans to announce further reductions in US nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example," McKeon said.
Republican Senator John Cornyn tweeted: "Will (Obama) propose US nuclear weapon cuts the day after North Korea conducts another nuke test?"
Obama was likely to replicate his initial statement on the North Korea crisis, in which he vowed a staunch defense of US allies in Asia and called for swift and credible international action to respond to Pyongyang's provocation.
The president had already been under fire from political opponents over another nuclear imbroglio, with Iran, as he argues for more time for punishing sanctions to convince the Islamic Republic to halt its atomic development.
While foreign affairs will have a place in the address, Obama is mostly likely to target a domestic audience by striking the populist tone that helped him defy tough times to win re-election in November.
The speech will take place in the shadow of Obama's row with Republicans over huge budget cuts due to hit in March 1, which could hammer the economy.
There are new reasons for alarm over the flat economy, after GDP contracted at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the last quarter of 2012 and the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent.
Obama is expected to revive some first term job creation ideas that did not make it past Republicans in Congress and come up with some new suggestions.
While the economy will be his prime focus, Obama is also likely to highlight other domestic issues, though he knows Washington's bitterly partisan climate could render many big plans dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
One priority will be building support for new laws to curb gun violence, after the horror of December's massacre of 20 small kids at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
First Lady Michelle Obama will host in her House box the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager gunned down in a random shooting not far from the president's Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
An undocumented immigrant, a gay federal employee, victims of gun violence and Apple's chief executive will also be at her side, and possibly get shout outs from the president to highlight aspects of his program.
Aides said Obama will also pitch immigration reform, the centerpiece of his second-term agenda, after Republicans launched a bid mend fences with Hispanic voters may be ready for some rare cross-party compromise.