Obama vows to reignite US 'engine' of growth
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will Tuesday vow to reignite America's engine of economic growth, as he lays out his second term agenda in a State of the Union address devoted to lifting up the middle class.
The re-elected US leader will also use the annual showpiece speech to tell Americans he will halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, and is expected to push for top priority plans including gun control and immigration.
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class," Obama is to say, according to excerpts of an address he will give at 9:00 pm (0200 GMT Wednesday).
"A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs -- that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.
"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 needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?"
Obama will also respond to a demand for attention from North Korea, which interrupted the rollout of his address by igniting another overseas crisis with its underground nuclear test.
The president will pack his speech with ideas to create jobs, partly through investments in government-funded infrastructure projects, and with initiatives on immigration reform, gun control and clean energy.
The speech will mark the Democrat's best chance to build support for his proposals after his November election victory, as he seeks to delay the domestic lame duck status that eventually hobbles all second term presidents.
It will complement the soaring defense of progressive politics and equality of opportunity which anchored his inaugural address last month, and seek to find a way to turn lofty ideology into a workable legislative program.
Obama, in line with his core mission of ending a draining decade of foreign land wars, will announce the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops remaining in Afghanistan by next February, ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
A senior Pentagon official told AFP it would be tied to the fighting season in Afghanistan, which runs into the fall.
"The approach you'll hear from the president tonight reflects the best military advice from commanders in the Pentagon and in the field," the official said.
With characteristic timing, North Korea thrust itself back into the US political debate Tuesday by conducting its third nuclear test, and some Republicans immediately jabbed Obama over policy towards the Stalinist state.
The test complicated the case the president planned to make for new cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, which has been at the core of his political career.
Howard "Buck" McKeon, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the test proved that such reductions could endanger American national security.
"It is also unfortunate that on the same day the President of the United States plans to announce further reductions in US nuclear weapons, we see another hostile regime unimpressed by his example," McKeon said.
Obama was likely to replicate his initial statement on the North Korea crisis, in which he vowed a staunch defense of US allies in Asia and called for swift and credible international action to respond to Pyongyang's provocation.
The president had already been under fire from political opponents over another nuclear imbroglio, with Iran, as he argues for more time for punishing sanctions to convince the Islamic Republic to halt its atomic development.
The speech will take place in the shadow of Obama's row with Republicans over huge budget cuts due to take effect March 1, which could hammer the economy.
Another priority Obama will highlight will be new laws to curb gun violence, after the horror of December's massacre of 20 small kids at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
First Lady Michelle Obama will host in her House box the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a teenager gunned down in a random shooting not far from the president's Chicago home days after she took part in his inaugural parade.
An undocumented immigrant, a gay federal employee, victims of gun violence and Apple's chief executive will also be at her side, and possibly get shoutouts from the president to highlight aspects of his program.
Aides said Obama will also pitch immigration reform, the centerpiece of his second term agenda, as Republicans -- keen to mend fences with Hispanic voters -- may be ready for some rare cross-party compromise.
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