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WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama yesterday staked his second term on an ambitious bid to mend America, pledging to narrow inequality, reignite the economy, fight gun crime and fix immigration.
Anchoring his annual State of the Union address on domestic priorities, Obama dealt only in passing with churning foreign policy crises, including North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s controversial atomic programme.
Closing in on his goal of ending an era of draining US wars abroad, Obama announced plans to halve US troop numbers in Afghanistan within a year, while vowing that the global pursuit of terror would go on.
He also struck a note of optimism in counseling middle class Americans still gripped by economic angst. “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger,” Obama said, in a speech punctuated by 23 standing ovations in the House of Representatives.
The address, before a huge national audience, was Obama’s best chance to sell his second-term plans to a divided nation and to stave off the domestic lame duck status all second-term presidents dread.
Obama called for fixing the gaping budget deficit, but described billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts due March 1 as “a really bad idea”. In an address steeped in progressive ideology, he slammed Republican ideas of adjusting retirement benefits and health care for seniors as “even worse.”
“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs—that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said, seeking to turn election vows that everyone should get a “fair shot” into reality.
Obama was at his most passionate when making the case for measures to stem gun violence, following the shocking massacre of 20 kids at a Connecticut elementary school in December.
“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” he cried, drawing lawmakers to their feet in an emotional tribute to victims of gun crime. “These proposals deserve a vote.”
In a keenly awaited move, Obama announced the return of 34,000 of the 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan by next February. Obama said North Korea’s nuclear test would only further its isolation, and promised to stand by Asian allies, strengthen missile defence and lead the world in a firm response.
Arguing Al Qaeda was a “shadow” of its former self, Obama pledged to help nations like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and to aid allies like France, which is fighting extremists in Mali.
Breaking new ground, Obama announced the start of formal talks between the United States and the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade pact and previewed a new plan to thwart cyber attacks on US infrastructure.
Obama pledged to keep up pressure on Bashar Al Assad’s regime and said he would stand firm in defence of Israel, which he will visit next month.