State of the Union: Obama Slams Republicans; Calls for Minimum Wage Raise, Action on Climate Change, Immigration Reform and Gun Control

President Barack Obama took the occasion of his State of the Union address Tuesday night to lay a largely progressive agenda, while calling out Republicans for putting the national economy in peril, and with it, the very future of the nation.

Specifically, the president addressed the Republican plan to allow automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, to take effect because of the refusal of GOP leaders to cut a deal with Obama for more targeted spending cuts and revenue increases. He also called out Republicans for a threat made by some to force a shutdown of the government by refusing to approve the next continuing resolution -- a piece of legislation that allows the government to function in the absence of a budget.

“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” Obama said. “We can’t do it.”

He also made a point of referencing the moment that gave birth to the sequester deal, when in 2011, Republicans in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling until they exacted a promise of spending cuts from the president. Without the previously routine raising of the debt ceiling, the U.S. would have defaulted on its debt, likely plunging the country into depression, and taking much of the world’s economy with it.

“Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open and pay our bills on time and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” Obama said.

A Confident Tone

Throughout his appearance before the joint session of Congress, Obama exuded a confidence that set Tuesday night’s address apart from his previous State of the Union speeches, laying out the most progressive agenda heard in decades from the presidential podium in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

While Obama sounded his familiar calls for broad investments in infrastructure and clean technologies, he also outlined goals for education that included universal pre-school and well as technical skills training through the kinds of apprentice programs used in Germany.

And in a move likely to cause consternation among the one percent, the president called on Congress not simply to raise the minimum wage, but to tie future increases, automatically, to upticks in the cost of living. While the raise he called for in the wage -- to $9.00 per hour -- still offers workers a paltry living, the idea of tying the wage to the cost of living is a very big deal. Twitter traffic related to the speech peaked, according The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta, when the president put forward his minimum wage proposal.

Taking on Climate-Change Deniers

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and a more recent Northeast blizzard, Obama seized the moment to make his case for taking on the challenge of climate change. Among the many devastating cuts the sequester will effect, the president noted, are cuts to energy and other scientific research. Then he declared the truth, so shocking to so many, that climate change is indeed real and that something must be done about it.

“Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend,” Obama said. “But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.”

Take that, Flat Earth Society! Pow to you, Petroleum Patriarchs!

However, notes AlterNet’s Tara Lohan, the president offered mixed signals on how to meet the nation’s energy needs, and failed to address the still unresolved fate of the Keystone XL pipeline. Lohan writes:

Even though Obama gave some lip service to renewable energy, he also kept up his support for natural gas and said that he would cut red tape to speed up new oil and gas permits, an idea that seems to run counter to doing “more to combat climate change.” The president continues to cling to tired notion of "all of the above" energy policy, which won't cut it in the climate change age in which we've now embarked.

Medicare and Social Security

The president said he was prepared to glean savings from Medicare that would equal those arrived at in the Simpson-Bowles plan, by reducing incentives for unnecessary tests, reducing what he called “taxpayer subsidies” for prescription drugs, and by “asking more from our wealthiest seniors,” implying some sort of means-testing.

Of Social Security, the president offered only generalities, but a line added to his speech after the prepared text was issued caused some furrowed brows.

Speaking of Republican calls for the cutting of both the deficit and the federal retirement program, Obama asked: “Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes? How does that promote growth?”

The structure of that rhetorical question would seem to imply that if Republicans were willing to close some tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans or for corporations, the president might be willing to countenance a cut in Social Security benefits.

Immigration and the Path to Citizenship

Of the many items on the president’s wish list, there are but a few that actually have a chance for passing into law, thanks to the majority held by Republicans in the House of Representatives, most of whom are pledged to oppose all things Obama. But immigration reform is one item that stands a decent chance, given the drubbing Republicans took at the polls, thanks, in part, to an increased portion of the electorate composed of Latinos and Asians, who voted for Democrats by wide margins.

The president reiterated the call for changes to the nation’s immigration laws that he set forth in his inauguration speech, and proposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who pass a background check and pay a penalty.

'They Deserve a Vote'

Especially when compared to his melodic inauguration speech, Obama's 2013 State of the Union was largely lacking in poetry until he came to the end. 

Throughout the chamber, dignitaries, including Vice President Joe Biden, wore green-and-white ribbons on their lapels, the school colors of Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 children and six adults were massacred by a lone gunman on December 14.

Sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama were Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nate Pendleton, parents of the late Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old who was gunned down while sitting in a Chicago park, just days after she performed with her high school majorette team at the president's inaugural parade.

Sitting with Rep. Steven Stockton, R-Calif., was musician Ted Nugent, whose most recent publicity stunt was a threat on the president's life, and who once invited Obama to "suck on my machine gun."

Obama seized the moment to dare Republicans to block a vote on control measures, including universal background checks for all gun purchases, as well as a ban on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines.

"If you want to vote no, that’s your choice," Obama told the members of Congress assembled before them. "But these proposals deserve a vote, 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. More than a thousand."

Among those lost, he said, was Hadiya Pendleton, and after describing her, he recognized her parents. "They deserve a vote," he said, repeating the sentence for its poetic effect.

"Gabby Giffords deserves a vote," he continued, speaking of the former Arizona congresswoman who is still recovering from a gunshot to the head she sustained during a massacre two years ago.

"The families of Newtown deserve a vote," he said, and went on to name towns made famous by violent tragedies. "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."

Not only was Obama's plea for gun control profoundly moving, it read as a stinging rebuke of the Republicans who continue to stand with the National Rifle Association and against gun regulation of virtually any kind.

Every American Deserves a Vote

Before he left the podium, Obama also recognized Desiline Victor, and elderly woman from Florida, and veteran of that state's war on the votes of people inclined to vote Democrat. "When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours," Obama said. "And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her, because Desiline is 102 years old."

The president was not entrusting Congress to fix that problem, however. He's appointed a "nonpartisan commission," he said, to arrive at some recommendations, a commission to be led by the "top attorneys" of his and Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns.

"We can fix this," Obama said. "And we will."

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