Obama to stress jobs, Afghan war troop withdrawal
WASHINGTON • Seeking to focus on nation-building at home, President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to call for more spending on infrastructure and manufacturing, while also announcing the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year.
The highly-anticipated announcement on the next phase of the troop withdrawal will cut the size of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in half by next February. The drawdown puts the U.S. on pace to formally finish the protracted war by the end of 2014.
A senior administration official confirmed the size of the troop drawdown on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the announcement ahead of the president.
While Obama is expected to focus the bulk of his prime-time address to a joint session of Congress on the economy and job creation, other foreign policy priorities interjected in the hours before his speech. North Korea said it successfully detonated a nuclear device Tuesday in defiance of U.N. warnings, and the White House said Obama would make the case that the nuclear program had only further isolated the impoverished nation.
"The president will say that the only way North Korea will rejoin the world community is if they stop these threats and live up to their international obligations," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.
Despite the pressing foreign policy concerns, it's the economy that remains the top priority for many Americans and a potential vulnerability for the president as he seeks to pursue other second-term priorities.
The economic blueprint Obama will discuss Tuesday will have many of the elements Americans have heard before, with its embrace of manufacturing, energy development and education. And in that sense it is a reminder of what was unfulfilled at the end of Obama's first term.
But the tragic murders of 26 people at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December altered the president's agenda, pushing combating gun violence onto a to-do list that already included a new push for an overhaul of immigration law.
As Obama speaks, many of the faces looking down on him from the galleries in the House of Representatives chamber will be those of Americans thrust into the politics of gun violence.
First lady Michelle Obama will sit with the parents of a Chicago teenager shot and killed just days after she performed at the president's inauguration. Twenty-two House members have invited people affected by gun violence, according to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who pushed the effort. And Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas says he's invited rocker Ted Nugent, a long-time gun control opponent who last year said he would end up "dead or in jail" if Obama won re-election.
As the president addresses gun violence, the cameras are sure to pan the faces in the crowd inside the House chamber, each with a story meant to influence the debate. Obama has proposed a ban on certain weapons and on high-capacity ammunition magazines. He has also called for broader, universal background checks on gun purchasers, a proposal that stands a better chance politically.
But White House aides say the economy is still Obama's central theme.
Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said "the president has always believed that our country is strongest when we build from the middle out, not from the top down" and said Obama's "confidence has grown" about accomplishing that.
Jarrett said Obama remains interested in a deal with Republicans to avoid automatic budget cuts on March and said he and House Speaker John Boehner had been "just moments apart" from striking a large-scale agreement on taxes and spending at the end of last year, but that the Ohio Republican couldn't sell it to his party's House caucus. Boehner's office denies that characterization of the talks.
The renewed emphasis on job creation will dominate the message that Obama will take to the road in the days after his speech, pushing his economic recovery proposals during stops in North Carolina, Georgia and his hometown of Chicago. Obama is expected to reiterate his calls for revitalizing the manufacturing sector; he pledged during his campaign that he would create million new manufacturing jobs during his second term. Following a sluggish 2012, manufacturing grew at a faster pace last month, driven by an increase in new orders and more hiring at factories.
His call for measures that prod the economy will play out as he presses Congress to avoid deep spending cuts that are scheduled to begin automatically on March . Obama wants instead a mix of tax revenue and cuts in spending that he has promoted as a "balanced" approach to easing federal deficits.
Obama has called for raising more revenue through ending tax breaks and closing loopholes, but he has not detailed a list of targets. He and his aides often mention as examples of unnecessary tax breaks a benefit for owners of private jets and tax subsidies for oil and gas companies. Such measures are modest, however. Ending the corporate plane and oil and gas breaks would generate about $43 billion in revenue over 10 years.
That appeal for new revenue is getting stiff-armed by Republicans, who reluctantly agreed at the start of the year to increase tax rates on the wealthiest Americans in exchange for extending Bush-era tax rates for the rest of taxpayers.
"He's gotten all the revenue he's going to get," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday. "Been there, done that."
With Republicans in control of the House and exerting influence in the Senate, Obama intends to employ all the tools at his disposal in an effort to win over the public to put pressure on Congress.
The White House and Obama's allies are launching simultaneous social media, public outreach and fundraising campaigns tied to his State of the Union address. Those efforts were successful in his re-election campaign and Obama aides believe they could be as effective in pushing policies as they were in pushing his candidacy.
"He's got to strike now," said presidential historian Allan Lichtman of American University, who believes the economy, the environment and long-term changes in federal entitlements are key to Obama's legacy. "Next year he won't have the ear of the public in the same way he has this time."
Jarrett appeared Tuesday morning on "CBS This Morning" and NBC's "Today" show.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.