PI Original Ashlee Rezin Wednesday February 13th, 2013, 4:37pm

Obama Calls For Congress To Act On Progressive Issues In SOTU Address

With a promise to fuel economic growth but not add “a single dime” to America’s deficit, President Obama’s State of the Union address focused on creating middle-class jobs and encouraged bipartisan support for initiatives such as raising the minimum wage.

With a promise to fuel economic growth but not add “a single dime” to America’s deficit, President Obama’s State of the Union address focused on creating middle-class jobs and encouraged bipartisan support for initiatives such as raising the minimum wage.

“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class,” Obama told a joint session of Congress and a national television audience on Tuesday evening.

In addition to bolstering job creation, Obama announced plans to pull 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next year, reducing the American presence by about half as part of a planned overall withdrawal.

He also called for universal preschool across the nation, saying “I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

And, in an emotionally charged portion of the address, immigration reform and gun control were given due attention.

Thirty-one members of Congress, all Democrats, invited someone affected by gun violence to the address. The parents of Hadiya Pendleton, the innocent 15-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed last month, sat next to the First Lady in her viewing box.

“They deserve a vote,” said President Obama, calling on Congress to vote on gun control measures.

The President also outlined general principles of immigration reform, such as tightened border security, earned citizenship and fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers. In doing so, Obama avoided dividing immigration reform by party and instead encouraged a bipartisan effort, reassuring Republicans that undocumented workers would wait at the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

“Bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. So let’s get this done,” he said. “Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away."

But there was no shortage of red flags for Republicans during the President’s address, as he introduced programs that would upgrade America’s infrastructure, called for more investments in science and technology, and encouraged the creation of manufacturing hubs, all of which may increase spending if costs are not offset by closing tax loopholes and, in at least one case, attracting private capital.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) immediately delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address, which was harsh and accusatory towards the President in delivery and marred by an awkward lurch to the left for a drink of water.

“This opportunity, to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life, it isn't bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs,” Rubio said. “Presidents in both parties, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity.

But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn't tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.”

Republicans will likely also push back against Obama’s demand for Congress to pursue a “bipartisan, market-based solution” to climate change, warning that if lawmakers do not act soon, “I will.”

Obama's SOTU speech also set the stage for a fight with congressional Republicans over his call for an increase in the federal minimum wage, saying it should be bumped up to $9 per hour. “No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said. The President pointed out that 19 states have already increased their minimum wages higher than the federal mandate; Illinois is one of those states.

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, last raised in 2009 by the Bush administration. The federal minimum wage translates to an annual salary of less than a $15,000, which is well below a living wage in most areas of the country.

“I have to work pretty much every day to get a pay check that’s gone before I even get it,” said Selina Brown, 25, a South Shore resident and former employee of Epic Burger in Chicago. With four children under the age of nine, Brown made $8.25 per hour until she recently quit over a scheduling conflict with her manager. She said she’s always been a minimum wage employee at fast food restaurants.

“The workers are the ones that build these big corporations and anybody that has children and has bills to take care of knows that a lot of people don’t have a choice — most people who come to these jobs have real problems to handle,” she said.

Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of community, faith-based and labor organizations, supports raising the minimum wage, and encourages it to be increased to $15 per hour.

“The most immediate benefit of raising the minimum wage here in Illinois is that it would raise about 1.1 million families out of poverty and generate about $2.5 billion in extra economic activity,” said Elizabeth Parisian, policy director for Stand Up! Chicago. “There are benefits to employers paying their employees a little bit more because it increases consumer spending ... If you pay your workers enough to afford your products you’ll sell more products.”

Parisian said many of the advocates against raising the minimum wage are “woefully blind to the economic realities of low wage workers.”

Illinois has the fifth-highest minimum wage in the nation, at $8.25 per hour. But in his State of the State address last week, Gov. Pat Quinn called for a hike of Illinois’ minimum wage to $10 per hour.

“Nobody in Illinois should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” said Quinn during his State of the State address.

But many Republicans, who failed to stand and applaud the call for a higher minimum wage during the President's SOTU speech, say raising the minimum wage would intensify America’s unemployment problem.

“When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” said House Speak John Boehner (R-OH) during a Wednesday morning press conference. “At a time when the American people are still asking the question ‘where are the jobs?’ why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?”

“A lot of people who are being paid the minimum wage are being paid that because they come to the workforce with no skills, and this makes it harder for them to acquire the skills they need in order to climb that ladder successfully,” he added.

Despite the traditionally liberal idea of raising the minimum wage, pressing Republicans to make a bipartisan effort to resolve budget and fiscal differences was a theme that resonated throughout President Obama’s State of the Union address.

"The American people don't expect government to solve every problem. They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party," he said.

Image: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool

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