WASHINGTON President Barack Obama, seeking to put the prosperity and promise of the middle class at the heart of his second-term agenda, called on Congress on Tuesday night to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, saying that would lift millions out of poverty and energize the economy.
In a State of the Union address that fleshed out the populist themes of his inauguration speech last month, Obama declared it was "our generation's task" to "reignite the true engine of America's economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class."
''A growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs — that must be our North Star," he said. "Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
The increase in the minimum wage — from its current $7.25 an hour — was the most tangible of a raft of initiatives laid out by the president, from education to energy, which Obama said would accelerate the nation's economic recovery by helping those in the broad middle class.
Raising the minimum wage, which the White House said would affect at least 15 million workers, also holds political appeal for the younger Americans, struggling workers and labor groups, all of which were important to Obama's re-election victory.
Speaking to a divided Congress, with many Republicans still smarting from his electoral victory last November, Obama declared, "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger."
He urged lawmakers to act on immigration, climate change, the nation's fiscal woes, and above all, gun violence, offering an emotional appeal that drew heavily on recent tragedies like the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. If they do not move, he said, he will use his executive authority to enact his own measures.
Obama also spoke darkly of the consequences of a failure to reach a budget deal, which would set off automatic spending cuts on the military and other government programs.
''These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness," he said, describing them as a "really bad idea."
Obama took the podium after a rousing welcome from lawmakers and other dignitaries. But millions of TV viewers, not to mention people glancing at their phones inside the chamber, were distracted by a manhunt unfolding across the country, where police in the San Bernardino Mountains of California were tracking Christopher J. Dorner, a suspect in the killing of several officers. News coverage concentrated on the search almost up to the point the president entered the chamber.
Republicans rejected Obama's activism, saying it would inevitably translate into higher taxes and an overweening government role, strangling growth and deepening the nation's fiscal hole.
But in selecting Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida, to deliver their party's official rebuttal, Republicans implicitly acknowledged the damage they had suffered at the polls from their hard line stance on immigration. Rubio, one of the party's rising stars, favors overhauling immigration laws.
In a speech dominated by domestic issues, Obama admonished North Korea a day after it tested a nuclear weapon, rattling its Pacific Rim neighbors. He warned the country's reclusive government that it faced further isolation, swift retaliation, and a United States bent on improving its own missile defense systems.
But as new threats erupted, old threats, Obama said, were receding. He announced, for example, that 34,000 troops would return home from Afghanistan by this time next year. That withdrawal, representing half the current U.S. force, underlined his resolve to wind down the second war of his presidency as quickly as he did the one in Iraq.
Obama was not trying to match the lofty tone of his inauguration speech, but the address was clearly intended to be its workmanlike companion. In place of his ringing call for a more equitable society was a package of proposals — some requiring legislation; others merely an executive order — that constitute a blueprint for the remainder of his presidency.
Among the proposals was a $1 billion investment to create 15 institutes to develop new manufacturing technologies, building on the success of a pilot project in Youngstown, Ohio. He said he would use oil and gas royalties from federal lands to pay for research in clean energy technology that would wean cars and truck off oil. And he recycled a proposal to help homeowners refinance their mortgages at lower rates.