America must restore a "thriving middle class," President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech before visiting an auto parts maker Wednesday.
"We gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded," Obama said in an hourlong nationally televised address before a joint session of Congress.
"Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.'
"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class,'' Obama said.
He pledged to fight for a higher minimum wage -- $9 an hour from $7.25 an hour by the end of 2015.
"This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families," he said. "It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead."
He called for new government investment in schools and clean energy, and pressed for $50 billion to improve aging roads and bridges -- saying none of his proposals would add "a single dime" to the deficit.
"It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," he said.
On the deficit, Obama called for reduction achieved through spending cuts and tax increases. He also said he would support "modest reforms" in programs including Medicare, as long as wealthy Americans contribute as well.
On foreign policy, Obama said he would cut troop levels in Afghanistan by half over the next year, an acceleration of the U.S. departure that would wind down America's longest war.
He also called for new limits on guns, asking Congress to give his proposals a vote, including universal background checks, and bans on so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun."
The Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 20 schoolchildren and six adult staff members dead.
In the Republicans' formal response, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he also wants economic growth but disagrees with Obama's approach.
"This opportunity -- to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life -- it isn't bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy," Rubio said in remarks televised immediately after Obama's speech ended.
"Presidents in both parties ... have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity," he said. "But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems."
Rubio added he and other Republicans do not favor wealthy Americans over the middle class.
"Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors," Rubio said.
Obama credited the "grit and determination" of the American people for helping turn the economy around, saying, "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger."
His statement differed from the typical presidential declaration that the state of the union is "strong."
Obama said the No. 1 U.S. priority must be "making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing."
"After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three," he said. "Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again."
The president was to tout U.S. manufacturing as central to renewing and restoring a thriving middle class during a visit to an automotive parts manufacturer near Asheville, N.C., Wednesday.
He was to tour the Linamar Corp. plant at 11:35 a.m. and deliver remarks at noon about "strengthening the economy for the middle class and those striving to get there," the White House said.
Linamar, a large Canadian auto parts maker, announced in June 2011 it would invest $125 million to reopen a shuttered Volvo Construction Equipment plant near Asheville to make engine blocks and axle components for trucks and heavy-duty construction equipment.
The plant employs about 150 people now and plans to hire 650 people eventually.
Members of the Asheville Tea Party and affiliated groups promised to stage a protest near the Linamar entrance. Environmental and animal-rights groups also planned to protest near the entrance.