Obama urges Congress to make government work for 'the many'

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama challenged a divided Congress to back his plans to create middle-class jobs on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that put a renewed focus on the US economy and sought support for overhauling gun and immigration laws.

Looking to use momentum from his re-election victory last November, Obama vowed to turn much of his attention toward reducing the country's 7.9 per cent unemployment rate.

"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few," he said.

Obama spoke from the well of the House of Representatives for his address to a joint session of Congress in the midst of yet another bitter battle with Republicans over taxes and spending, and this tussle cast a heavy shadow over his appearance.

Even as Obama spoke, House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, accused him of offering "little more than the same stimulus policies that have failed to fix our economy and put Americans back to work."

Boehner's comments came in a statement that was issued while Obama was still delivering his address and the speaker was sitting behind him, at times scowling. "The president had an opportunity to offer a solution tonight and he let it slip by," Boehner said in his statement.

Obama reserved his toughest words to urge a resolution to a festering budget battle that will result in automatic deep spending cuts at the end of the month unless a deal can be reached.

Americans, he said, do not expect government to solve every problem, "but they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromises where we can."

Many of his proposals may face a difficult path getting through Congress. He proposed raising the US minimum wage for workers from US$7.25 (S$8.90) to US$9 an hour. Republicans typically oppose increases in the minimum wage out of worry it will prompt businesses to fire workers.

He backed a US$50 billion programme to fund infrastructure rebuilding projects like fixing aging bridges, but many Republicans are adamantly against such stimulative government spending after Obama's first-term US$787 billion stimulus did not lead to a dramatic reversal in the unemployment rate.

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