US President Barack Obama has set forth an ambitious agenda in his State of the Union Address. His wide-ranging speech touched on topics including the war in Afghanistan, trade, gun control and the economy.
Obama received a warm welcome when he entered the House of Representatives Tuesday to address a joint session of Congress for the first time since beginning his second term in office. With Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner standing behind him, Obama said that the US would withdraw half of its military force in Afghanistan.
The president announced a plan to scale back from 66,000 troops to 32,000 within 12 months as part of a goal by the Washington to pull out nearly all combat troops by the end of 2014. The move would bring a close to the more than decade-long war in the country.
"Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 troops will come home from Afghanistan," he said. "This draw down will continue and by the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over."
Obama also said the US would strengthen its missile defense and help the world respond to the potential nuclear threat posed by Iran and North Korea, the latter of which defied the international community on Tuesday, by conducting its third nuclear test.
"Provocations of the sort we saw last night [from North Korea] will only further isolate them," he said, while adding that the leaders of Iran "must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution … and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."
On the issue of international trade, Obama said the US will "launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying jobs."
Last week, EU leaders endorsed trade talks with the US. A pact between the US and EU would unite America, the world's largest economy, with four other countries in the top ten: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.
Gun control 'deserves a vote'
While the president touched on a number of foreign policy issues during his Capital Hill address, the bulk of his speech focused on domestic issues.
Obama drew his biggest applause of the night when he brought up the issue of tightening gun control laws. The president, who has proposed new firearms legislation, said that the US has debated gun control before, but "this time was different," referring to wake of gun tragedies last year, particularly the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
"These proposals deserve a vote," he said of his plan to ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips. "Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
Talking jobs, education
The speech came at an important time for the American economy, with Republicans and Democrats currently deadlocked over government spending.
Obama said the American people do not expect the government to solve every problem, "but they do expect us to put the nation's interests before the party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromises where we can."
"Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't find full-time employment," he said. "Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged."
The president proposed a number of fiscal changes, including raising the minimum wage for workers from $7.25 to $9 an hour and backing a $50 billion program to fund infrastructure rebuilding projects.
"No one who works full time should have to live in poverty," he said.
Education reform was also on the docket on Wednesday, with the president saying the American school system must do more to prepare students for employment.
"Let's also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job," he said. "Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they're ready for a job."
Following Obama's address, Republican Senator Marco Rubio laid out the framework of his party's economic vision in the official Republican response to the speech.
"The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families," Rubio said, and urged Obama to "abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy."
dr/jr (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)