President Barack Obama has used his annual State of the Union address to announce what he called “concrete, practical proposals” to reduce the gap between rich and poor in the United States.
He has also touted progress under his administration in bringing America "closer to energy independence than we've been in decades" and pushed for "responsible" energy development goals, including the reduction of carbon emissions and other measures to combat manmade climate change.
On foreign policy, Iran and Afghanistan were the top issues in the annual address to a joint session of Congress, but he also expressed support for the right to peaceful free expression in connection with the current unrest in Ukraine.
Tehran And Kabul
Obama said he would veto any move by Congress to impose fresh sanctions against Iran in the coming months in order to give diplomatic efforts on Tehran’s nuclear program a chance to succeed.
But he also said he would lead the call for new sanctions if those negotiations failed.
"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said. "If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."
Obama also said a small U.S. and NATO military force may remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
But he promised to declare an end to 12 years of war there by the end of 2014 and said any U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after this year will be there for two specific reasons: training and counterterrorism.
"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of Al-Qaeda," Obama said. "For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."
Speaking to RFE/RL after the speech, Michelle Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Obama's Iran appeal was strong but his Afghan remarks lacked specifics.
"He really made an argument for continuing the nuclear negotiations with Iran. He said three separate times what the goal of those talks is, which is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he said that he would veto any new sanctions bill that was sent to him by the Congress regarding Iran," Dunne said, before turning to Afghanistan, where negotiations have bogged down with President Hamid Karzai over a bilateral security agreement. "He also talked a bit about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, although he didn't go into much detail.... I think some people were hoping to hear a bit more from him about that or expecting to really call on President Karzai to sign the agreement with us. But he was very low key about that."
Obama also addressed the raging protests in Ukraine, where a decision in November to abandon talks over closer ties to the European Union sparked popular anger and two months of street protests.
"In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future," he said.
Several people have died and hundreds have been injured, while scores more Ukraiinians have been jailed or disappeared since the so-called Euromaidan demonstrations intensified following the passage of harsh antiprotest legislation this month.
On the domestic front, Obama said he would use executive action “wherever and whenever” he can “take steps without legislation” in order to expand economic opportunities for middle class American families:
“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better," Obama said.
"But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
Obama said he was eager to work with lawmakers to speed up economic growth in a way that strengthens and increases opportunities for middle class Americans. But he said “America does not stand still – and neither will I."
“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class," the U.S. president said.
"Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The president's speech, delivered while millions of Americans watched on television and on the Internet, marks the opening salvo in a midterm Congressional election campaign that is expected to consume Washington in the months ahead.
Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as protectors of the rich, have pressured Obama to focus more on the issues of economic fairness and efforts to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
Obama suggested that the American work ethic is threatened by growing income disparity in the United States:
“What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead," he said.
"Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”
In a Republican response aired after Obama’s speech, U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers charged that “more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one” under Obama’s economic policies.
McMorris also criticized Obama’s health care reforms, saying the legislation has led to canceled insurance coverage and patients who are unable to see their regular doctors.
She said Republicans are trying “to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become.”
She said: “That is the gap Republicans are working to close” – the gap “between where you are and where you want to be.”
Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague; with contributions by Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington