WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama challenged Congress on Tuesday night to assist an American middle class squeezed by rising costs and stagnant wages, and made it clear that he will devote much of his second term to closing the income gap between rich and poor.
In his first State of the Union address since re-election, Obama called restoring the country's middle-class promise "our generation's task," casting the ability to work and prosper as a basic American principle in jeopardy now because of a changing economy and partisan dysfunction in Washington.
Arguing for an active government role to tackle inequality, Obama proposed a series of ways, some old, some new, to improve access to education and expand job training programs. He would raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour -- nearly a 25 percent bump -- over the next three years.
Many of his previous economic plans have stalled in a divided Congress. But speaking from a position of political strength, and facing a deficit under $1 trillion for the first time, Obama suggested the American public supports many of his goals, even if many in the chamber do not.
In an hourlong address focused tightly on domestic issues, Obama also announced that he will bring home 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan over the next year, cutting the U.S. force level there by almost half.
The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan concludes at the end of 2014, and Obama intends to keep only a small force there for training and counter-terrorism missions beyond that date. "After a decade of grinding war," the president said, "our men and women in uniform are coming home."
The speech, interrupted repeatedly with raucous and sometimes strictly partisan applause, was Obama's fourth State of the Union address. He used the annual ritual to attempt to turn the page on a first term preoccupied with winding down two wars and working to repair a badly damaged economy.
"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis," he said, "and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger." Throughout the speech, however, was a warning that the nation's progress, which he repeatedly called "unfinished," is in peril unless Obama and Congress can work together on the economy's behalf.
"We gather here knowing that that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded," he said. "It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class."
Economic progress has been halting since he took office, and he spoke Tuesday with the looming threat to the economy of automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, just over two weeks away.
Obama and Congressional leaders have been unable to reach agreement on how to avert the cuts, which the president warned Tuesday would fall hardest on those who can least afford them.
He called for "bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform," and emphasized that his proposals would not add to the $854 billion deficit, only re-allocate money already in the budget to finance them.
"But let's be clear: Deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan," Obama said. "A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts."
Republican lawmakers reacted coolly to Obama's message, characterizing the program he outlined as a defense of big government at a time when they believe over-regulation and high taxes are keeping the economy down.