State of the Union 2013: Economy, gun control on Obama's radar

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WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan and take steps to boost the fragile U.S. economy as he delivered a closely watched State of the Union address laying out his priorities for the year and for his newly begun second term in office.

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his StateoftheUnion address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

The hour-long speech before a joint session of Congress' two chambers on Tuesday night was dominated by domestic issues, as Obama challenged deeply divided lawmakers to find compromises that would boost job creation and strengthen America's middle class. He conceded America's economic revival is an "unfinished task."

His focus on jobs and growth underscored the degree to which he is still hampered by the economy, with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, even as he pursues a bolder agenda including overhauling immigration laws, enacting stricter gun-control measures and tackling climate change.

Still, he said: "We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong."

Foreign policy received less attention, but took on greater urgency as the speech came hours after North Korea detonated a nuclear device. Obama said "provocations" like the test will further isolate North Korea "as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

Obama also announced that the U.S. will begin talks with the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade agreement, "because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs."

The annual address is one of the biggest events in Washington. It is broadcast during prime evening viewing hours by the major television networks, with Washington's most powerful officials - lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, military leaders and Cabinet members - all in attendance and millions of Americans watching from home.

This year's speech came at one of the strongest points in Obama's presidency. He won re-election by a convincing margin, is generally popular, and opposition Republicans appear weakened and fractured.

Obama was kicking off three days of travel to rally support for the economic proposals he unveiled in his address. He will launch the effort Wednesday in Asheville, North Carolina, with a visit to Linamar Corp., a supplier of engine and transmission components that has expanded its manufacturing operations. He'll make stops in Atlanta on Thursday and his hometown of Chicago on Friday.

But Republicans still control the House of Representatives and hold enough votes to stall legislation in the Senate, and tough fights loom on the budget and other top issues.

With the economy still the biggest concern of most Americans, Obama devoted less time to foreign policy this year. But his announcement on the withdrawal of 34,000 troops from Afghanistan - about half the force there - was a major development, even if it was highly anticipated. It puts the United States on pace to formally finish the protracted war by the end of 2014.

Obama also pledged to work with Russia to seek further reductions in nuclear arsenals. In addition to the European trade talks, Obama said he would work to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with the Asia-Pacific region.

He also said the United States "will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian."

In addressing climate change and gun control, Obama waded into territory where he will face stiff resistance from Republicans.

On climate change, Obama pledged to work with lawmakers to seek bipartisan solutions, but said if Congress doesn't act, he'll order his Cabinet to seek steps he can take using his presidential powers.

Obama said major storms, droughts and wildfires that have afflicted the United States can be considered "just a freak coincidence, or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it's too late."

He implored Congress to at least hold votes on gun control measures, listing a series of high-profile shootings, such as the killings of children at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and the shootings at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

"The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote," he said, drawing a standing ovation from Democratic lawmakers and supporters in the gallery in the most boisterous moment of the night. Obama added that no measures would prevent every act of gun violence. "But we were never sent here to be perfect. "

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