WASHINGTON - Pledging to revive a "rising, thriving middle class," President Barack Obama promised Tuesday night to create solid new jobs without raising the federal deficit. He's calling for a "smarter government" but not a bigger one.
In excerpts released ahead of his State of the Union address, Obama called job creation his "North Star" and implored a divided Congress to center its work on attracting more jobs to the U.S., equipping Americans to compete for those positions and making sure hard work leads to a decent living.
"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.
The president said his proposals to increase spending on manufacturing, infrastructure and clean-energy technologies would be fully paid for, though he did not specify in the excerpts how he would offset the cost of his proposals.
"Nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," Obama said. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."
In focusing his annual address on jobs and the deficit, the president is underscoring the degree to which the economy still threatens to disrupt his broader second-term agenda. Despite marked improvements since he took office four years ago, the unemployment rate is still hovering around 8 percent and consumer confidence has slipped.
White House officials said Obama was offering an outline for job creation, though much of his blueprint apparently includes elements Americans have heard before, including spending more money to boost manufacturing and improve infrastructure. Getting that new spending through Congress appears unlikely, given that it would require support from Republicans who blocked similar measures during Obama's first term.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star, was to deliver his party's response. In excerpts of his remarks, Rubio also appealed to the middle class, but sought to draw a distinction with the president by citing "our free enterprise economy" as the source of prosperity, not the government.
The president was expected to be uncompromising in his calls for lawmakers to offset across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to begin March 1 with a mix of tax increases as well as targeted budget cuts.
The president hasn't detailed where he wants lawmakers to take action, though he and his aides often mention as examples of unnecessary tax breaks a benefit for owners of private jets and tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. Such measures are modest, however. Ending the corporate plane and oil and gas breaks would generate about $43 billion in revenue over 10 years.
That appeal for new revenue is getting stiff-armed by Republicans, who reluctantly agreed at the start of the year to increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending Bush-era tax rates for the rest of taxpayers.
"He's gotten all the revenue he's going to get," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "Been there, done that."
Still, buoyed by his re-election, the president and his top aides are confident that Americans back their vision for the economy. Immediately following his speech, Obama was to hold a conference call with supporters to urge them to pressure lawmakers to back his agenda. He'll also seek to rally public support with trips this week to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois.
Though Obama was devoting less time to foreign policy in this year's speech, he was to announce that 34,000 U.S. troops - about half the size of the American force - would leave Afghanistan within a year. The drawdown announcement has been highly anticipated and puts the nation on pace to formally finish the protracted war by the end of 2014.
And he was expected to sharply rebuke North Korea for defying the international community and launching a nuclear test hours before Obama's remarks. The White House said Obama would make the case that the impoverished nation's nuclear program has only further isolated it from the international community. North Korea said Tuesday that it successfully detonated a nuclear device in defiance of U.N. warnings.
Also Tuesday night:
- The president was to press Congress to overhaul immigration laws and tackle climate change.
- His wish-list was to include expanding early childhood education and making it easier for voters to cast ballots in elections.
- Obama was expected to make an impassioned plea for stricter gun laws, including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
First lady Michelle Obama was to sit with the parents of a Chicago teenager shot and killed just days after she performed at the president's inauguration. Twenty-two House members have invited people affected by gun violence, according to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who helped with the effort. And Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas said he had invited rocker Ted Nugent, a long-time gun control opponent who last year said he would end up "dead or in jail" if Obama won re-election.