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Obama presses for new spending, says gun control bills 'deserve a vote'

President Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to press for more government spending, challenge Republicans over Medicare and declare that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” on a sweeping gun control package.

In what was effectively the kick-off address of his second term, Obama largely pressed on with the policies of his first, while adding a roster of wish-list items – including a call to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, up from $7.25, and pass immigration reform. 

The speech was wrapped in the theme of boosting the middle class and jolting what continues to be a tepid economic recovery.

“It is our generation’s task … to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class,” Obama said.

Still, Republicans saw in his address a president clinging to ideas they have repeatedly rejected, and say do not work.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was delivering the GOP response, said Obama’s solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more." More government, he said, will “hold you back.”

House Speaker John Boehner also panned what he called the president's "go-it-alone-approach," accusing him of pushing "stimulus policies that have failed to fix our economy." 

Obama in his speech defended and promoted investments in clean energy as well as infrastructure. He proposed, among other ideas, a “fix-it-first” program to put people to work on “urgent repairs” like structurally deficient bridges. 

He also called for expanding early education to all 4-year-olds in the country. Obama called for the expansion of manufacturing “hubs,” comprehensive tax reform and help to homeowners trying to refinance.

“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” Obama said.

He stressed, though, that his proposals would be “fully paid for.”

“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth,” Obama said.

Regardless of whether Obama’s proposals add to the deficit, he is sure to face a mixed reception in putting the emphasis on new government programs when many – particularly House Republicans – are more interested in paring back the spending out of Washington. Some argue this could even help the economy by sending a signal that the federal government is at last tackling the budget deficit.

Obama acknowledged Tuesday that the “biggest driver” of long-term debt is the rising cost of health care. He said America “must embrace the need for modest reforms” but “we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful.”

He called for a “balanced approached” to closing the deficit that includes cuts and tax increases, though Republicans say the debate over tax hikes is over.  

He said he would back some Medicare reforms that reduce subsidies to prescription drug companies and “ask more from the wealthiest seniors.”

The president, while spending the bulk of his address on economic and budget issues, was perhaps most impassioned when talking about gun legislation. With many victims of gun violence and their families in the audience Tuesday night, Obama claimed broad support for strengthened background checks and said a range of measures – like an assault-weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines – should get a vote in Congress.

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” Obama said.

The president also vowed to sign immigration legislation that achieves certain goals – like a “responsible pathway to earned citizenship.” The immigration legislation may be easier to achieve than any comprehensive gun regulation package, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already working on the framework for an immigration bill.

On foreign policy, the president declared Tuesday that he would withdraw 34,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next year, which represents about half the force in the country now.

The president spoke Tuesday as the economy showed mixed signs of recovery. While hiring has picked up since the sluggish 2009-2010 period, the unemployment rate ticked up again last month. While the stock market appears to be steadily improving, economic growth remains tepid – the Commerce Department estimates the economy actually shrank by .1 percent at the end of 2012.

Obama, after watching the economy creep out of recession during his first term, knows better than to do a victory lap. His advisers for days previewed his 2013 State of the Union as one that would – like prior addresses – be focused on creating jobs.

But Obama and the rest of Washington are facing a balancing act, with another looming deadline demanding that Washington take serious steps to address the federal deficit.

Automatic spending cuts are poised to hit March 1 unless a deal is reached to replace them. Some Republicans are talking about letting the cuts simply take effect, though the Pentagon will bear the brunt of the hit. Other Republicans want to replace the scheduled cuts with a separate package of cuts.

Obama, to the chagrin of Republicans, wants to include tax increases in any package. He has also urged Congress to draft a short-term bill if no deal can be reached by March 1. Republican leaders have largely bristled at this demand.

Obama, in his address, also touched on climate change. Though it’s unclear exactly what Obama might propose on the issue, he said “we must do more to combat climate change.”

“It’s true that no single event makes a trend.  But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” Obama said.

And he responded in his address to North Korea’s latest nuclear test, saying “provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate” the regime.