WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's fourth State of the Union offered a concrete, if smaller-scale, attempt to implement the surprisingly sweeping liberal vision he offered in his second inaugural address last month.
The most striking specifics — education reform and a minimum wage hike, in particular — he framed as part of a broad effort to lift more people into the middle class including tax reform and promoting equal pay laws. Among the education proposals — ensuring all children have access to high-quality preschools and efforts to make colleges more accountable for tuition increases.
Aides said Obama views the speech as "act two" of a two-act play, the first being his inaugural address three weeks ago. Last month he was hopeful in speaking for the history books. Tuesday night Obama was more understated, mindful of limits on what he can do alone, and focused on impressing Congress and the American people with the need for action.
He took the opportunity to make a political case to avert mandatory cuts, known as the sequester, timed to fall into place in the next two weeks. Obama warned the American public the cuts would be devastating and encouraged Republican and Democratic lawmakers to reach a compromise.
"These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness," he said. "They'd devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs."
On gun control, Obama repeated his earlier calls for an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and a ban on high-capacity magazines — and told lawmakers that he expects them to bring the proposals up for a vote, mentioning the recent shooting of Hadiya Pendleton, who participated in the inaugural ceremonies just last month.
"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote," Obama said, as lawmakers interrupted the speech by chanting the refrain. "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote."
But on immigration reform, Obama was more hands-off, standing by his pledge to let congressional lawmakers continue to work on a bipartisan agreement.
In an hour-long address clocking in at more than 6,400 words, the president also repeated his longtime calls for additional infrastructure spending to promote job creation, calling for $40 billion to repair structurally deficient bridges and $15 billion for demolition and rebuilding in blighted communities.
And Obama announced that the United States will begin negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union.
Before Obama took the podium, senior administration officials contested Republican spin that the address would be liberal like his inaugural, saying it reflects what the majority of Americans support.
However, they refused to say how Obama will pay for his proposals, saying they would fall within the federal budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act. They added that specifics would come out when the president's budget is released — likely in the middle of March.
"The reason some of these common-sense ideas are 'old' is because Congress hasn't acted on these yet," a White House official explained Monday. "The president isn't just going to give up because Congress hasn't acted on them yet."