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President Obama Challenges Congress to Help Middle Class

President Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Charles Dharapak/Pool/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

The message at the heart of President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night centered on lifting up the economy and challenging members of Congress to work with him to help improve the lives of middle class Americans.

“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,” Mr. Obama said.

The president outlined a series of steps as part of his agenda, such as improving access to education and job training programs, upgrading the country’s infrastructure and raising the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour over the next three years.

“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” Mr. Obama said.

If the middle class was the heart of the message, the heart of the speech itself was the Mr. Obama’s impassioned call for lawmakers to consider legislation to reduce gun violence. Last month, in the aftermath of the deadly shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the president put forward a list of proposals that included renewing a ban on assault weapons, limiting the size of magazine clips and adopting universal background checks for all gun sales.

Several Democratic lawmakers brought victims of gun violence to the address, and the guests sitting with first lady Michelle Obama included a teacher from Sandy Hook, a police officer who responded to the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year, and the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old killed by gunfire last month about a mile from the Obamas’ Chicago home.

“They deserve a vote. Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. 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,” Mr. Obama declared.

Still, much of the president’s remarks focused on bread and butter economic and fiscal issues. Mr. Obama put his own spin on former president Bill Clinton’s line, “the era of big government is over,” saying, “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

The president warned that the automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1 would “jeopardize” military readiness and “devastate” domestic priorities, calling them “a really bad idea.” He criticized attempts by GOP lawmakers to replace the defense cuts with more reductions to domestic programs “even worse” of an idea.

Mr. Obama again pressed lawmakers to support a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit that included revenue increases and spending cuts. “Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” he contended.

The president also reflected on the country’s progress during his first term, telling lawmakers that together they had “cleared away the rubble of crisis” and that the state of the union “is stronger.” (In case you forgot, in 2012, he said it was “getting stronger.”)

He was interrupted by applause 74 times, according to a count kept by NewsHour desk assistant Rachel Wellford.

The official Republican response was delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who criticized Mr. Obama for proposing government solutions to “virtually every problem” facing the country.

“The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers — that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried,” Rubio said. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back. More government isn’t going to create more opportunities. It’s going to limit them.”

Rubio also accused Mr. Obama of engaging in class warfare with lawmakers who disagree with his economic policies.

“I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors,” Rubio said, noting that he still lives in the “same working class neighborhood” he grew up in.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who gave the tea party response, blamed both Democrats and Republicans for out-of-control spending in Washington.

“Both parties have been guilty of spending too much, of protecting their sacred cows, of backroom deals in which everyone up here wins, but every taxpayer loses,” Paul said. “It is time for a new bipartisan consensus. It is time Democrats admit that not every dollar spent on domestic programs is sacred. And it is time Republicans realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.”

Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner notes that while Rubio and Paul’s dueling speeches could appear to be an early 2016 Republican primary faceoff, the two senators have the same voting record.

Mr. Obama will continue the public push for his agenda on Wednesday, travelling to Asheville, N.C., where he will visit a plant that produces heavy duty engine parts.

On Tuesday’s NewsHour, White House press secretary Jay Carney defended Mr. Obama’s campaign-style appearances as an “obligation” to both supporters and detractors. “It’s simply not the case that we should just have these conversations among ourselves here in Washington. The president believes that we need to go out into the country and have the conversation with the American people,” Carney told Judy Woodruff, adding: “He will continue to work with Congress, continue to negotiate with Congress and continue to meet with Congress on issue after issue. But he’s not going to leave the American people out of the equation.”

On his way back to the White House after the speech, Mr. Obama dialed in to a conference call with campaign supporters and asked them to help give his legislative agenda a boost.

“I hope what I said tonight resonated with you. But remember, me saying it doesn’t mean anything. To get it passed, to get it signed, to get it implemented, to get it done, that is going to require a big push from you guys,” Mr. Obama said.

The president’s revamped campaign apparatus, now called Organizing for Action, also sent an email to backers urging them to sign a petition.

Twitter released data early Wednesday morning suggesting that spikes in interest came when Mr. Obama pushed “ladders of opportunity” and the new minimum wage — 24,000 tweets came in per minute. A close second was “they deserve a vote,” with 23,700 tweets per minute, followed by Mr. Obama’s discussion about early childhood education.

You can watch the PBS State of the Union special with Judy, Mark Shields and David Brooks here or below.

Watch the address in full here or below:

Watch Rubio’s response in full here or below:

And Paul’s tea party response is here or below:

If you speak a language other than English help us translate the speeches.

Finally, if you missed Christina’s Google Plus hangout with voters, journalists and Tufts historian Peniel Joseph, you can watch the pre-speech chat here and the post-speech chat here. And here is a summary.


Immigration reform was a passing reference in Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address, and he kept his remarks general, urging lawmakers to agree with “the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities” that “[it] is the time to get it done.”

Mr. Obama broadly noted that his administration has stepped up border enforcement and called for a path to citizenship as long as the person has passed a background check, pays taxes and is learning English.

“Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away,” he said. “And America will be better for it.”

Lawmakers might be on track to send him a bill, with a bipartisan group in the House readying a package of proposals and hearings beginning Wednesday to examine the issue.

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing Wednesday that will be packed with testimony. The Associated Press rounds up the witness list: “Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and — in an unusual move for Congress — an illegal immigrant, Jose Antonio Vargas, a former journalist who founded the group Define American, which campaigns for immigration reform. The former head of America Online, Steve Case, also was on the witness list, along with Chris Crane, president of the immigration and customs’ workers union, which has opposed Obama’s immigration policies.”

Senate Democrats who belong to a bipartisan immigration group will brief Mr. Obama on Wednesday. The action comes as a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed 70 percent of voters surveyed favor creating a pathway to citizenship, but that figure dropped to 59 percent in the context of Mr. Obama backing such a plan.


  • The Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act by a 78-to-22 vote Tuesday. All of the Senate’s female members voted in favor of the measure. The House must now act, but first lawmakers must agree on changes to the legislation, which now protects same-sex partners and extends to tribal lands. Mr. Obama urged the House to pass it during his speech Tuesday night, and he also called for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

  • The Senate Armed Services Committee voted, 14-11, to send Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary to the full Senate. Jonathan Chait suggests nominating Hagel was a bad idea.

  • An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed six in 10 hold “strongly” positive (30 percent) or strongly negative views (30 percent) of Mr. Obama’s policy agenda less than one month into his second term.

  • Gawker declares the state of our union is “dope, y’all,” after Mr. Obama does an exploding fist bump with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who holds his seat in Illinois.

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., doesn’t seem interested in a repeat of last year’s last-minute fiscal cliff showdown when it comes to averting the sequester. “Read my lips: I am not interested in an eleventh-hour negotiation,” he said.

  • The New York Times profiles 89-year-old “night owl” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and his reluctance to leave Washington as Newark Mayor Cory Booker mounts a challenge for his seat.

  • Booker has had some staff turnover recently, losing three campaign staffers as he readies his bid for U.S. Senate. Here’s more from Politico.

  • A golden oldie: Bill Clinton’s 1985 response to the State of the Union, via BuzzFeed.

  • National Review Online reports that former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour attacked the Club for Growth at the Ripon Society last week for putting more conservative Republicans against other Republicans. “Politics can’t be about purity. Unity wins in politics, purity loses,” Barbour told NRO.

  • Environmental groups ran a full-page ad in Tuesday’s Des Moines Register urging New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo not to allow fracking wells in the state.

  • An affenpinscher named “Banana Joe” was chosen as Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday night. Joe was selected over six other group winners, including “Swagger,” an Old English sheepdog who received lots of cheers from the crowd.

  • Relatedly, one Washingtonian named his dog after journalist Chuck Todd.

  • Thanks, NPR! Handy tips on when to know if the zombie outbreak is real or fake.

  • Wednesday’s tidbit from NewsHour partner Face the Facts USA looks at overlap in Pentagon programs.


  • NewsHour team Linda J. Scott, Katelyn Polantz, Michael Fritz and Joshua Barajas were on Capitol Hill Tuesday night capturing reaction from lawmakers. Watch this playlist of those interviews.

  • Hari Sreenivasan talked with former White House speechwriters Don Baer and Michael Gerson. They each revealed secrets from speeches they wrote.

  • NewsHour politics desk assistant Simone Pathe examined successes and flops in Mr. Obama’s State of the Union proposals.

  • Don’t miss Meena Ganesan’s look at the designated survivors of State of the Unions past.

  • The NewsHour reported on the implications of North Korea’s missile launch.

  • As part of our coverage of the Supreme Court challenge, the NewsHour is asking you to share what you remember from when the Voting Rights Act became law. Here’s more on this storytelling-via-voice-mail project. To call in your own story, dial 703-594-6PBS.


Katelyn Polantz and Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @kpolantz, @indiefilmfan, @tiffanymullon, @dePeystah, @meenaganesan and @abbruns.

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