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Obama calls for 'smarter' government in State of the Union

WASHINGTON – Declaring that the nation is stronger “after years of grueling recession,” President Obama advocated an array of modest second-term initiatives Tuesday night that he said wouldn’t bust the federal budget.

There were no sweeping new initiatives. In a one-hour speech that weighed in at a hefty 6,600 words, the president focused at length on domestic issues, including gun control, voting rights, education, immigration and economic development.

“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.

The president addressed global issues, including climate change and some of the  national security challenges that may well come to define his second term. To applause, Obama formally announced an expedited U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that will roughly halve the remaining force, a reduction of 34,000 troops. 

QUIZ: How much do you know about the State of the Union? 

“By the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over,” he declared, as members of both parties rose to their feet.

In line with Obama’s aversion to greater military involvement, including in Syria, Mali and other trouble spots, the U.S. will leave behind a residual force in Afghanistan of a few thousand troops for training and counter-terrorism, pending the negotiation of an agreement with the Afghan government.

Some of his most emotional language was saved for the problem of gun violence, one of the top items on his agenda.  He highlighted the tragic stories of shooting victims, or their surviving relatives, who were on hand to add extra punch to Obama’s renewed plea for new background checks on all gun sales and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons.

Among those were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old majorette who performed at Obama’s inauguration last month, then was slain in a shooting days later about a mile from Obama’s house in Chicago.  Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), severely injured in an assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011 and now leading a new gun control effort, was also looking down from the gallery.

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“They deserve a simple vote,” the president said, to an audience in the House chamber, where prospects for gun control legislation remain in doubt.  “Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  In fact, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can.”

The president defended his counter-terrorism efforts overseas, including a reference to the controversial use of unmanned drones.  But he said he would work with Congress to make the deadly targeting “more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Obama reacted sharply to North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test this week, asserting that such “provocations” would only further isolate the reclusive regime of Kim Jong Un   At the same time, he said, his administration will work with leaders in Moscow to make further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

Moving to strengthen the nation's cyber-defenses, Obama said he had signed an executive order earlier in the day to improve sharing of classified information between the government and the owners and operators of critical infrastructure, including electric utilities, dams and mass transit.  Legislation that would have created more comprehensive standards for the private sector was blocked in Congress last year, amid opposition from civil liberties groups worried about individual privacy as well as Republicans and business leaders concerned about unnecessary regulation.

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Many of the initiatives Obama touched on in his speech will probably require executive action in the end, to circumvent opposition from conservatives in Congress.

The nation must do more to fight global warming, he said, addressing skeptics of climate change.

“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.”

If Congress won’t act “soon,” he added, “I will,”  probably through new Environmental Protection Agency limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

In another nod to environmental action, he called for more research to make burning natural gas cleaner, and he proposed to use revenue from the production of petroleum on federal lands to fund a new federal trust fund for research to end the burning of hydrocarbons to power cars and trucks.  

Obama also announced the creation of a new study commission to make it easier for Americans to vote without enduring long waits at polling places.  The panel will be led by Robert Bauer, Obama’s 2012 campaign counsel, and Benjamin Ginsberg, who held a similar position in Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign.

In an echo of his reelection campaign themes, the president framed many of his proposals around the middle class, which he described as “the true engine of America’s growth” when it is “rising” and “thriving.”  But he said that “the unfinished task” of America today is “to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few.”

Education initiatives figured prominently in Obama’s plans to build what he termed “ladders of opportunity” to help poor Americans reach the middle class. They include offering universal preschool for every low- and moderate-income 4-year-old in the country.

Many of the ideas were either recycled proposals or initiatives that would probably require little or no new spending, such as a competition to redesign the nation’s high schools and “promise zones” to help rebuild 20 hard-hit communities by coordinating government assistance and private investment.

Other proposals included a renewed effort to boost the still-recovering housing market.  The president wants to waive up to $3,000 in refinancing costs to help homeowners benefit from today’s low interest rates, including those whose mortgages are not government-backed loans.

The president announced that new talks with the European Union would begin on a free trade agreement, an effort to lift export-related sectors of the U.S. economy.

He also called for gradually raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2016, a proposal that would probably face an uphill climb in Congress.  He said future increases should be automatically tied to cost of living increases, calling that “an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year.”

The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since the first year of Obama’s presidency,  although 19 states, including California and Illinois, have since adopted higher rates.  According to the White House, raising the minimum wage to $9 by 2016 would restore its real purchasing power to the 1981 level, adjusted for inflation.

But the proposal also reflects the scaled-back reality of Obama’s ambitions in a government stalemated by partisan division.  When he came to office four years ago, Obama wanted to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011.

He also proposed a $1-billion plan to create 15 institutes around the country to promote innovative American manufacturing.  The White House said Obama would launch three of them immediately, using existing funding from the Defense and Energy departments, among other resources, including contributions from the private sector.

Obama defended his proposals by saying that, taken together, they wouldn’t increase the deficit. But covering the costs of his proposals will require cuts elsewhere, and the full details are unlikely to be available before mid-March, when the president releases his 2014 budget.

“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 said. “A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs, that must be the north star that guides our efforts.  Every day we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”

Obama plans to hit the road after his State of the Union speech to promote his second-term agenda across a diverse range of states – one that voted Republican in the last presidential election, one Democratic and one very much up for grabs.

The first stop on the sales tour will be Wednesday in Asheville, N.C., a new-agey oasis nestled in the mountainous, largely conservative western part of the state. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 but narrowly lost it in 2012, and the state is regarded as the best prospect for future Democratic gains in the South outside Virginia and Florida.

The following day, Valentine’s Day, the president is expected to pitch early childhood education in Decatur, Ga., a trendy town of 20,000 bordering Atlanta. His itinerary includes stops at a citywide pre-kindergarten program and a recreation center. Obama lost solidly Republican Georgia by 8 percentage points, though Democrats may be able to close that gap as minority voters assume a growing share of the electorate.

On Friday, the president will return to his hometown of Chicago and talk about gun violence.

To notch any major goals requiring approval by Congress, Obama will need to act quickly, and the next few months are likely to be critical. By next winter, the approaching midterm election will inevitably come to dominate the Washington mind-set, making compromise even more difficult and landmark accomplishments, if any, exceedingly rare. Beyond the elections in 2014 – when Obama’s party will lose seats in Congress, if history is any guide – the president will come to be seen as a lame duck, making him more and more irrelevant, outside of a foreign policy crisis requiring immediate action.

With that time line in mind, Obama was at or near the height of his remaining power when he strode into the crowded chamber of the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening. 

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paul.west@latimes.com

Twitter: @paulwestdc

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