by Michael Mathes
WASHINGTON (AFP) - Republican lawmakers slammed President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday for not tackling the nation's budget crisis, saying he only offered bigger government and more spending.
One after the other, Republican senators and congressmen expressed disappointment with the litany of new programs Obama mentioned -- from education and infrastructure to manufacturing and tax reform -- saying he failed to explain how the country would pay for them.
Obama "missed an opportunity to try to connect with members on my side of the aisle and many in the country who recognize we have a serious problem with out of control government spending," Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told AFP after the one-hour speech to Congress.
Many of the 500-plus lawmakers rose to their feet at least 23 times in ovations for the president as he hit on various themes, including ending the war in Afghanistan, reforming the tax code and overcoming partisan gridlock.
But Obama's soaring rhetoric appeared to have done little to span the partisan divide that has hindered major legislation in recent years.
"Not impressive," sniffed Republican Tim Scott, one of two African-American senators currently in the chamber.
"It sounds like we have endless streams of cash coming from somewhere," Scott added. "It's remarkable to think the wish list can be accomplished without actually seeing higher revenues."
Conservative congressman Raul Labrador put it succinctly: "Probably one of the worst speeches I've ever heard the president give," he winced to AFP.
Obama was disjointed and unfocused, Labrador said, adding that the president only became emotional near the end when he addressed the need to reduce gun violence.
"I thought it lacked inspiration," he added.
One area where he and several other Republicans, including Senator Rob Portman and congressman Cory Gardner, offered positive feedback was on immigration.
The president has proposed a comprehensive immigration reform package, as has a bipartisan "gang of eight" senators, and lawmakers Tuesday night were optimistic that a deal could pass through Congress this year.
The linchpin of any such deal would be freshman Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and rising star from Florida widely tipped as a 2016 presidential candidate, who laid out the framework of his party's economic vision in the official Republican response to Obama's speech.
"The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families," Rubio said, as he urged Obama to "abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy."
Republicans are smarting from their election defeat, when Americans largely rejected their austerity push and Obama handily won the Hispanic and the youth vote.
The 41-year-old Rubio touched on his own immigrant roots -- and delivered his speech in both English and Spanish -- to drive home the message that conservative politics can have broad appeal.
"Mr President, I still live in the same working class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires," Rubio said.
"They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They're workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills," he added.
"They're immigrants who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy."
Republican Senator Rand Paul, who offered the Tea Party response, was more blunt about his party's need to tap into minority voters.
"We are the party that embraces hard work and ingenuity, therefore we must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future," Paul said.
"We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities."
But Rubio was the Republican most people were talking about late Tuesday, after an impromptu and bizarre incident during his televised speech which left many observers scratching their heads.
In the middle of his speech, Rubio leaned nearly out of the frame, picked up a bottle of Poland Spring water and seemed to take a furtive sip before anxiously returning to his comments.
Social media and the Twitter world exploded, with several parodies of the water sip popping up within minutes and critics suggesting the awkward move damaged his image.
Obama stakes second term on progressive goals
Obama on Tuesday staked his second term on an ambitious bid to mend America, pledging to narrow inequality, reignite the economy, fight gun crime and fix immigration.
Anchoring his annual State of the Union address on domestic priorities, Obama dealt only in passing with churning foreign policy crises, including North Korea's recent nuclear test and Iran's controversial atomic program.
Closing in on his goal of ending an era of draining US wars abroad, Obama announced plans to halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, while vowing that the global pursuit of terror would go on.
He also struck a note of optimism in counseling middle class Americans still gripped by economic angst.
"Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger," Obama said, in a speech punctuated by 23 standing ovations in the House of Representatives.
The address, before a huge national audience, was Obama's best chance to sell his second-term plans to a divided nation and to stave off the domestic lame duck status all second-term presidents dread.
Obama called for fixing the gaping budget deficit, but described billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts due March 1 as "a really bad idea."
In an address steeped in progressive ideology, he slammed Republican ideas of adjusting retirement benefits and health care for seniors as "even worse."
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts," Obama said, seeking to turn election vows that everyone should get a "fair shot" into reality.
Obama's message was unapologetically tailored to a domestic American audience, as he insisted that government investment must bankroll jobs growth.
"He will be about revitalizing the middle class and (easing) a sense of insecurity that has swept through much of the nation," said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
But Republicans wasted no time in trying to thwart Obama's plans.
"President Obama? He believes ... that the economic downturn happened because our government didn't tax enough, spend enough and control enough," said rising star Senator Marco Rubio, giving the Republican rebuttal speech.
"As you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."
Obama's reflex instinct for compromise has ebbed after years of partisan warfare.
Now he seems intent on leveraging political capital won with his re-election to force his will in Congress, banking on the idea that Republicans will pay the price for standing in the way of ideas voters support.
Obama was at his most passionate when making the case for measures to stem gun violence, following the shocking massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
"If you want to vote no, that's your choice," he cried, drawing lawmakers to their feet in an emotional tribute to victims of gun crime.
"These proposals deserve a vote."
Looking on in the House gallery were the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager killed in a random shooting not far from the president's Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
In a keenly awaited move, Obama announced the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
"This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over," he said.
In a brief diversion abroad, Obama said North Korea's nuclear test Tuesday would only further its isolation, and promised to stand by Asian allies, strengthen missile defense and lead the world in a firm response.
Obama said "Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution," ahead of new talks with world powers this month on Tehran's nuclear program, which Western nations and Israel believe is aimed at developing nuclear weapons but Iran defends as entirely peaceful.
Arguing Al-Qaeda was a "shadow" of its former self, Obama pledged to help nations like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and to aid allies like France, which is fighting extremists in Mali.
Breaking new ground, Obama announced the start of formal talks between the United States and the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade pact and previewed a new plan to thwart cyber attacks on US infrastructure.
Despite criticism he ignored the slaughter of nearly 70,000 people in Syria, Obama pledged to keep up pressure on Bashar al-Assad's regime and said he would stand firm in defense of Israel, which he will visit next month.
He also tried to shame Congress into action on climate change.
"We can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late," Obama said.
Domestically, Obama said he wanted a bill to reform the broken immigration system to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship within months -- the one area where bipartisan compromise seems likely.
Back in campaign mode, Obama will travel to North Carolina, Georgia and his hometown of Chicago to sell his speech this week.
US to help allies, be more open in fight on Al-Qaeda
The United States will help its allies confront an evolving Al-Qaeda threat and be more transparent with the American people in the fight against terror groups, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
Al-Qaeda was now a "shadow" of the group that was behind the September 11, 2001 attacks, Obama said in his annual State of the Union address.
But he warned lawmakers gathered in the imposing US Congress: "Different Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged -- from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving."
To battle the threat, the United States does not need "to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations," Obama said.
"Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali."
The United States has provided some $50 million in logistical support to French and Chadian troops deployed in northern Mali to help the Malian army flush out Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, who seized control of the area last year.
But amid a fierce debate about more secretive US actions, Obama said Washington would not shy away from taking "direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans."
The issue burst into the spotlight after Obama was forced last week to give lawmakers access to secret documents outlining the legal justification for drone strikes that kill US citizens abroad who conspire with Al-Qaeda.
The move came on the eve of the Senate hearing on Obama's nomination of his top White House anti-terror adviser John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency in his second term.
Some senators had warned they would use Brennan's confirmation as leverage to force the administration to share more information on the legal and constitutional grounds for the US government killing its own citizens.
Obama aides have insisted that killing Al-Qaeda suspects, including occasionally US citizens, in hotspots like Yemen complies with US law, even when no intelligence links the targets to specific attack plots.
Obama said the administration had worked to keep Congress "fully informed" of counterterrorism efforts.
He acknowledged, however, that "in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way."
"So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."
Kabul welcomes Obama's troop withdrawal plan
The Afghan government on Wednesday welcomed President Barack Obama's announcement that the United States will withdraw 34,000 troops from the war-torn country over the next year.
"We welcome this," defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP. "We will take all security responsibilities by the end of 2013.
"Our troops will replace them."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long supported the scheduled withdrawal of US and NATO combat troops by the end of 2014, saying Afghan forces are capable of taking responsibility for the fight against Taliban insurgents.
Obama, who made the troop withdrawal announcement during his State of the Union address, said the drawdown would continue and "by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over".
The Taliban dismissed the troop pull-out as insufficient.
"The problem is not going to be solved with reducing or increasing the number of troops," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
"As long as the invading forces remain in Afghanistan, the jihad (holy war) continues. The problem is solved with the complete withdrawal of the invading forces and returning Afghanistan back to Afghans."
Obama's move effectively halves the size of the current 66,000-strong US force in Afghanistan, as NATO troops prepare to hand over control for security operations to some 352,000 Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
NATO, which has about 37,000 troops in Afghanistan, will also withdraw them in stages before the end of 2014.
Obama vows to get tough with North Korea
Obama vowed "firm action" alongside US allies against North Korea and South Korea accelerated a planned upgrade to its offensive missiles after Pyongyang ignited global fury with its third nuclear test.
China, North Korea's trade and financial lifeline, signed up to a UN Security Council statement accusing the communist state of standing in "grave violation" of UN resolutions amid global condemnation of Tuesday's blast.
The Council highlighted its threat made last month -- after North Korea breached UN resolutions by firing a long-range rocket -- to take "significant action" if Pyongyang went ahead with the nuclear test.
But North Korea, which analysts say has closed ranks under the young leadership of Kim Jong-Un, remained defiant after saying the underground test was forced upon it by US "hostility."
"The DPRK (North Korea) will never be bound to any resolutions," said Jon Yong-Ryong, first secretary of North Korea's mission in Geneva, berating the UN resolutions as "entirely unreasonable."
Any tougher UN action after years of sanctions against the recalcitrant North will depend on how far China is willing to push its ally. In his State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday, Obama stepped up the rhetoric.
"America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons," he said.
"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations."
North Korea alarmed friends and foes alike less than a day before Obama's speech when it carried out its latest nuclear test, which US and South Korean monitors said was much more powerful than the previous tests in 2006 and 2009.
Pyongyang boasted it had tested a "miniaturised" device, a claim that will fuel concerns it has moved closer to fitting a warhead on a ballistic missile.
Experts were assessing whether the test involved uranium, giving Pyongyang a new and easier-to-sustain method for nuclear fission alongside its depleted stocks of plutonium.
Obama said: "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defence and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."
Even China, which is keen to avoid the chaos that could ensue if the isolated North collapses, was stern in its condemnation of the test and summoned North Korea's ambassador in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi discussed the test by phone with US Secretary of State John Kerry, the foreign ministry said, reiterating China's longtime stance of urging all sides to "avoid an escalation of the situation".
But Chinese social media users berated authorities for what they saw as the relatively mild response.
One commentator using the nickname Wuyuesanren slammed the idea that North Korea's nuclear program boosted China's security, likening Beijing's policy to "keeping a crazy dog to guard the house".
North Korea "simply doesn't trust China and is not willing to be inhibited by China", wrote Zhuanshengben in another post. "For China alone to emphasise China and North Korea's so-called friendship, this is the ultimate stupidity."
South Korea, which placed its US-backed military on alert after the test at North Korea's Punggye-ri site, said it would fast-track the development of longer-range ballistic missiles that could cover the whole of North Korea.
"We will speed up the development of ballistic missiles with a range of 800 kilometers (500 miles)," defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters.
Last October South Korea reached a deal with the United States to almost triple the range of its missile systems -- with Seoul arguing it needed an upgrade to counter the North's missile and nuclear programmes.
Kim said the South would also speed up the deployment of a "kill chain" system capable of detecting, targeting and destroying North Korean missiles.
Following the test, the head of South Korea's intelligence agency warned that Pyongyang may well carry out a further test or a ballistic missile launch in the coming days or weeks.
The North itself insisted that any tightening of sanctions would trigger "even stronger second or third rounds of action."
All 15 Council members including China backed Tuesday's UN statement and said they would "begin work immediately on appropriate measures".
The test ignited yet another round of tension on the Korean Peninsula, where peace has never been formally declared since a 1950-53 war between the authoritarian north and pro-Western south.
Obama urges US Congress to act on climate
Obama on Tuesday told divided lawmakers he will act on climate change even if they do not, vowing to set ambitious long-term goals such as ending the car's dependence on oil.
Obama pledged to promote wind, solar and cleaner natural gas energy in the world's largest economy and called for the United States to cut the energy wasted by homes and businesses by half over the next 20 years.
In his annual State of the Union address to Congress, Obama rebutted head-on the many climate skeptics in the rival Republican Party by noting that 12 of the world's hottest years on record took place in the past 15 years.
"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," Obama said.
"Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late," he said to a mixture of applause from Democrats and silence from some Republicans.
Obama promised that he would keep allowing new oil projects. But he proposed using oil and gas revenues to set up an "Energy Security Trust" that would conduct research to shift all cars and trucks off oil in the long term.
Obama pointed out that Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of the administration, in 2003 introduced with then senator Joe Lieberman a failed proposal to restrict greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.
"I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago," Obama said.
"But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.
"I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy," Obama said.
The "Climate Stewardship Act" by McCain and Lieberman would have capped greenhouse gas emissions at 2000 levels and set up a market to give businesses an incentive to become more environmentally friendly.
The proposal, which was reintroduced in 2005 and 2007, was defeated. A more ambitious bill led by Obama's Democratic Party to reduce emissions passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but died in the Senate.
Obama has since relied on executive power to fight climate change, with the Environmental Protection Agency ordering stricter standards for power plants which form the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
As Obama was speaking, Republican leaders released statements urging Obama to approve the Keystone pipeline from Canada, arguing that it would create jobs. The pipeline is strongly opposed by environmentalists as the oil from tar sands is heavy in carbon emissions.
Environmentalists, seeing a new opportunity in Obama's renewed focus on climate change, plan what they hope will be a major rally in Washington on Sunday to press for action.
US climate scientists say that even if the world meets current goals on emissions, the planet is still poised for potentially catastrophic warming. Obama has set a goal of cutting emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.
Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said that by meeting its target, the United States "can signal that it's serious about tackling climate change at home while enhancing its credibility on the global stage."
Notable quotes from Obama's State of the Union
Obama gave his annual State of the Union address to the joint houses of Congress on Tuesday. Here are some notable passages from his address:
It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence, but this time is different.
Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals.
Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they're tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.
Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.
Right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities, they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Now's the time to do it.
We know what needs to be done. And as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts.
So let's get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it.
For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.
If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.
I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.
The leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations.
And we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
We can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of Al-Qaeda.
Tonight, I can announce that, over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.
America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons.
The regime in North Korea must know, they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations.
Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
AL-QAEDA AND US ALLIES
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. It's true, different Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged, from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa.
The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations.
Instead, we'll need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.
We'll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands, because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead and meet our obligations."