WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press) - President Barack Obama showed no indication Tuesday that he's ready to lessen the pressure on his Republican critics as he delivered a State of the Union address that continued to push for immigration reform and gun control legislation, while calling for investments in infrastructure and education that would be partially paid for by new taxes on wealthier Americans.
Noting the economic gains made since he first took office in 2009, Obama said in his speech that the nation's unfinished task remains 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.
"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," he said, adding that Americans buy more vehicles from Detroit automakers than five years ago.
"But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded."
As expected, much of Obama's speech centered on creating jobs, with the national unemployment rate at a still-high 7.9% and the Michigan rate, as of December, at 8.9%. To that end, he proposed creating a national network of manufacturing institutes, picking up on a pilot program launched in Youngstown, Ohio, last summer.
That program uses federal funding to leverage matching money from companies, colleges and nonprofit organizations to help manufacturing companies compete with new technology and know-how.
Obama said as many as 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been created in the last three years, and manufacturers have been moving jobs into the U.S. -- including Ford, he said, which is bringing jobs back from Mexico.
Meanwhile, the president also discussed the creation of an energy security trust -- paid for by funds the federal government collects to lease offshore oil and gas drilling sites -- that would fund research into advanced energy technology to shift car and trucks from oil onto alternative fuels at a time when the nation already has "doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas."
Also, Obama proposed a $40-billion "fix-it-first" infrastructure program, which would focus on repairing existing roads and bridges rather than building new ones. And he called for $15 billion to be spent demolishing damaged or abandoned structures across the nation.
Two Republican responses were delivered -- one from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, widely considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, and another from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, speaking from the perspective of the tea party.
Rubio said the economy shrank during the last three months of 2012 and that tax increases won't help the situation -- despite the fact that Obama is calling for additional tax revenue as a means to restore balance to the federal budget.
Rubio, the child of Cuban immigrants, delivered his remarks in both English and Spanish, speaking directly to workers who he said "aren't millionaires" but would be hurt by the president's tax proposals. In the last election, Hispanic voters broke sharply for Obama.
"The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking, middle-class taxpayers -- that's an old idea that's failed every time it's been tried," Rubio said. "More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back."
Deep cuts feared
The president spoke to a joint session of Congress at what could be a turning point.
On March 1, deep, automatic cuts are set to hit defense and domestic programs unless Democrats and Republicans can reach what, at this moment, seems an unlikely compromise. Those cuts could wound defense contractors in Michigan, slash Head Start money that serves nearly 40,000 Michigan children and reduce the amount of food inspections that can be performed, among other impacts.
In the speech, Obama said the "sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts" will jeopardize the nation's military security and "devastate priorities like education, energy and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs."
"There is simply no way we can absorb such a large reduction without cutting children, families and staff from programs," said Robin Bozek, executive director of the Michigan Head Start Association, who said it could result in 2,200 fewer children in Michigan receiving services.
Last week, the White House noted thousands of food inspections could be affected -- a situation Gerald Wojtala, executive director of the International Food Protection Training Institute in Battle Creek, said means "the food supply isn't as safe as it could be."
While mentioning the sequestration cuts, Obama again called for higher tax revenues -- along with spending cuts -- even after winning Republican concessions to raise rates on individual earners making more than $400,000 and families making more than $450,000 a year.
He said he would push to "save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected," adding that it will help pay for his proposals "and improve opportunity for the middle class while not exacerbating the federal deficit."
"Let me repeat: 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."
He also proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2015 -- from the current $7.25 -- providing better preschool education for children and challenging high schools to develop better curriculum for subjects such as computer science and engineering.
No easy compromise
Obama's agenda is expected to face a hard road. Immigration reform, mentioned again in the speech, remains a difficult issue on which to find compromise, and the Republican-led House has shown little indication that it's ready to move on gun control legislation in the wake of the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn.
In fact, one Republican legislator -- Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas (who was born in Bloomfield Hills) -- invited musician and gun rights activist Ted Nugent, who was born in Detroit, to sit in the gallery of the House as his guest.
The president -- building to an emotional peak in the speech by running through a powerful list of many of the communities that have seen the effects of gun violence -- said regardless of how individual members of Congress feel, gun control legislation deserves a vote.
"This time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans -- Americans who believe in the Second Amendment -- have come together in support of commonsense reform," he said.
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat, praised the speech as a challenge for Congress "to do the things we need to do." But on the question of gun control legislation, Dingell -- a supporter of gun rights -- said the House is going to have to see what the Senate can pass first. Meanwhile, Dingell said he's trying to "come up with a piece of legislation that makes sense" that can pass in the Republican-led House.
Obama said he would continue looking for ways to reduce the budget deficit without hurting investment in specific programs and said he would look to reduce spending in Medicare for elderly people by restraining growth in health care costs.
But he also challenged Congress on the question of climate change, saying it's time to move ahead with bipartisan legislation to reduce greenhouse gases. Obama also called -- again -- for doubling the amount of renewable energy the U.S. generates.
"The fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15," he said. "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. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late."
The president also announced the drawdown of another 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by this time next year, with the rest being withdrawn by the end of 2014. He said his administration would stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and that nuclear tests like the one reported Tuesday in North Korea would further isolate that nation.
More details of the president's plans were expected in the weeks to come as the president prepared his budget. Meanwhile, he was set to visit an automobile parts maker in North Carolina today, with stops in Atlanta and Chicago to follow this week.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Harrison Township Republican, said she agreed with parts of the speech, like the withdrawal of troops. But she said she's still waiting for a "realistic" plan on deficit reduction.
"I'm hopeful he'll use his bully pulpit to try to get something that would pass both chambers," she said.