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Obama Aims to Put GOP on Defense in State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to pressure Republicans to avoid automatic spending cuts set to hit next month while proposing a host of new economic, energy and education initiatives sure to please his base.

The president asked Congress to work with him, telling the nation that the economy is poised for growth if politicians in Washington, D.C., don’t commit any more self-inflicted wounds.

Indeed, Obama aims to put Republicans in a box. They will own the sequester if they refuse to compromise on more tax revenue from the wealthy and corporations, according to a senior administration official — even as the GOP, in turn, tries to hang it on the White House.

“Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong,” Obama said.

But, he said, too many people still need jobs, even as corporate profits have hit all-time highs.

“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class. 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, what you look like, or who you love.”

Obama called the sequester’s cuts “a really bad idea” but he said making even bigger cuts to education, job training, Medicare and Social Security benefits would be worse.

“We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful,” Obama said.

It’s the same fairness message the president has been using for two years, and a senior administration official said that either Republicans will cave — as they did in December on letting tax rates go up on the wealthy — or they will be held responsible for every kid who gets kicked out of Head Start programs, every related layoff and all of the damage to the economy.

Obama made an appeal to avoid the serial budget crises that have dominated Washington over the past two years.

“Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” he said, knowing full well another shutdown showdown looms next month, followed by another debt ceiling hike come May. Like many of his lines, the appeal got a healthy response from Democrats, less so from the GOP.

The president also announced an assortment of new proposals in the speech that will cheer his base but are likely to face trouble getting through a divided Congress. For example, he may find Republicans a hard sell in his push for a $9-an-hour minimum wage, an ambitious new plan for universal access to pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten, assorted plans for green-energy subsidies, a raft of new gun laws and even a new call for climate change legislation.

None of his proposals will add to the deficit, Obama promised.

“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Obama said.

A minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $9 by the end of 2015 would give raises to 15 million workers, according to the White House, restoring the buying power the wage level had in 1981 and lifting many of those workers over the poverty line.

The pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten initiatives aren’t yet fully fleshed out — no price tag was provided by the White House — although officials promise they will be offset with cuts by the time the president presents his budget in mid-March.

The president’s climate change push has a steep climb, of course, and Obama faces a tall order given that many Republicans continue to express doubts about the science behind global warming or are not convinced that the government should act on it.

Obama noted that the 12 hottest years on record have come in the past 15 years, and he said the raft of extreme weather events of the past several years should not be considered a fluke.

“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,” he said. “Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”

Obama named specific goals, such as doubling renewable electricity generation again by 2020 and a new Race to The Top program to reward states for energy efficiency efforts.

He also said he wants Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution like the one Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., worked on. But the president also warned that if Congress won’t act, “I will.” That section got a chilly reception from the GOP.

However, his push for a comprehensive immigration policy rewrite got a warm bipartisan cheer, with Republicans such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah standing up to applaud his push. Hatch co-authored the Dream Act only to join in a filibuster of it in 2010, but the GOP has clearly had a change of heart on the issue.

Obama ended his speech with an emotional appeal for his gun control agenda, acknowledging that the proposals may not pass, but deserve a vote.

“This time is different,” he said, noting that overwhelming majorities support background checks and other proposals. He appealed to lawmakers using the names of recent gun violence victims, such as murdered Chicago teenager Hadiya Pendleton, whose family was in the audience.

“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,” Obama said.

But much of the speech included a laundry list of proposals similar to ones he’s proposed in the past — which Congress has put on a shelf. Obama at one point thanked Congress for enacting some of his proposals and said lawmakers should pass the rest now.

He made his seemingly perennial pitch for a $50 billion infrastructure package. This time under the slogan “Fix it First,” he emphasized the need to repair existing bridges rather than build new projects. Other proposals include a push for a massive refinancing for homeowners at today’s low rates, $15 billion to rehabilitate or demolish damaged or vacant properties and the creation of 20 new “Promise Zones” for development.

Many of the proposals are relatively modest, but they are sure to poll well. That includes the president’s plan for $1 billion to create 15 manufacturing institutes around the country — an idea that had members of both parties cheering — and a new “college scorecard” aimed at giving students information comparing costs and quality. Obama will use his executive authority to create three new manufacturing centers while waiting for Congress to act.

And there were the usual pushes to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas while calling for tax code reform.

Obama also addressed the nuclear threats from the Iran and North Korea — calling for diplomacy, a unified world response and beefed up missile defenses. But he also called for new talks with Russia to further reduce nuclear arsenals and touted a peace dividend from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as one way to pay for a new long-term transportation spending plan.

Obama’s plan to reduce the American troops in Afghanistan by 34,000 by a year from Tuesday night leaked earlier in the day. It builds on the president’s attempts to portray the tides of war as receding on his watch — and it seemed popular inside the room. He also announced a new cybersecurity executive order while calling on Congress to act.

The Republican reaction was swift, and almost uniformly negative. Indeed, some lawmakers, including Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., sent out embargoed, canned missives hours before the speech began.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., led the official GOP response, telling his personal story and wrapping it in small-government Republican ideals. Government programs aimed at helping the middle class too often hurt them, he said, targeting Obamacare, a subject mentioned only in passing by the president.

And Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who had to sit through a series of jabs aimed squarely at him, just a few feet behind the president, issued a negative press release not long after the speech ended.

Boehner called the speech “more of the same ‘stimulus’ policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work. We cannot grow the middle class and foster job creation by growing government and raising taxes. … We are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester, and he failed to offer the cuts needed to replace it.”

Boehner said that instead of working with Republicans, Obama “appears to have chosen a go-it-alone approach to pursue his liberal agenda.”

In a briefing Tuesday afternoon, senior administration officials argued that the speech was neither liberal nor conservative, noting that many of the ideas have long had bipartisan support.

Some are explicitly so — such as a new election reform commission that will be headed by top Obama campaign lawyer Bob Bauer and top Romney lawyer Ben Ginsberg. But many of the proposals are likely to wind up as so much cannon fodder for a GOP intent on reining in government, not expanding its reach.

That’s a reality even administration officials quietly acknowledge.

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