When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address tonight he urged Congress to work with him on creating jobs, ensuring that all Americans have the skills they need to fill those jobs and making the nation a leader in climate change. He also announced a draw down of troops from Afghanistan within a year. But the issues that received the most enthusiastic responses were those that have touched real-life people, such as gun violence and voting rights.
Sitting in the House gallery above him were dozens of victims and survivors of gun violence, many of them sporting green ribbons. They included Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendleton, parents of the slain Chicago teen Hadiya, who were there as guests of First Lady Michelle Obama.
"She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend," Obama said of Hadiya. "Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."
Hadiya and her parents, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, the families of Newtown and countless other communities "ripped open by gun violence," the president said, deserve a vote from lawmakers on gun control legislation. They can vote no, he added, but the proposals on the table, from background checks to assault-style weapon bans, deserve consideration, given how many lost opportunities victims of gun violence have suffered in the two months since the Newtown shootings alone.
"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem. They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue," he said. "But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together, and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all."
On voting rights, Obama pointed to another of the first lady's guests, Desiline Victor, a 102-year-old naturalized citizen originally from Haiti, who stood in line for hours under a Florida sun to cast a ballot last fall. He announced the creation of a nonpartisan commission to "improve the voting experience in America," that will be led by two attorneys who worked for his campaign and for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's.
"We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read 'I Voted'."
Obama said that he and other lawmakers were sent to Washington "to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country. We should follow their example."
In other ways, his speech was a book end to his Inauguration Day remarks. His primary message centered on making the United States a magnet for job creation and a place where if you work hard and do the right thing anyone can get ahead.
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," he said. "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?"
He warned against the effect of automatic, across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs set to take effect on March 1, known as the sequester, calling it a bad idea. He also said that a proposal by some lawmakers to preserve the defense budget by cutting things like education, job training and entitlements an "even worse" idea.
Obama called on lawmakers to enact tax and entitlement reform, even though "the politics will be hard for both sides," in a way that "replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future." He also asked them to end the brinksmanship that "stresses consumers and scares off investors."
The president proposed a series of initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and housing that will help create new jobs, but also noted the need for Americans to also expand their skills. In addition to increased investment in early education, he also called for high schools to equip students for the workforce, particularly for high tech jobs. He called on Congress to change the Higher Education Act to tie an institution's affordability and value offered to the amount of federal aid it receives.
Many Americans who work fulltime still live in poverty. The president asked lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour, which he said "could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead." The minimum wage, he added, should be a wage people can live on.
On foreign policy, Obama announced plans to withdraw another 34,000 American troops from Afghanistan over the next year. By the end of 2014, he pledged, the war in Afghanistan will be over and greater support for veterans and military families.
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(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)