Obama to focus on reviving US economy

President touches on Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria and Iran, but State of Union speech dominated by domestic issues.

President Barack Obama has announced plans to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan and measures to lift the US economy in a State of the Union address that laid out priorities for his second term in office.

The speech on Tuesday before a joint session of US Congress was dominated by domestic issues, as Obama challenged divided politicians to find compromises that would boost job creation and strengthen America’s middle

Foreign policy received less attention, but took on some greater urgency as the speech came hours after North Korea announced that it had detonated a nuclear device.

Obama said North Korean leaders “must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations”.

He said “provocations” like the test will further isolate North Korea “as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defence, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats”.

Obama also announced that the US 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”.

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.

Foreign policy

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, is a major development, even if it was highly anticipated.

It puts the US on pace to formally finish the protracted war by the end of 2014.

Arguing al-Qaeda was a “shadow” of its former self, Obama pledged to help nations such as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies like France fighting extremists in Mali.

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

He also said the US “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”.

Republican repsonse

Obama also used the address to press for congressional action on climate change and for stricter gun control laws, both of which face resistance from House Republicans.

His push for overhauling immigration laws had broader appeal. It is one of the few major issues on which badly divided Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.

Florida senator Marco Rubio delivered the Republican Party’s response to Obama’s address.

Seeking to help his party shed its image as a defender of the rich, Rubio stressed his working-class upbringing and the need to save social safety net programmes.

Rubio said: “The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families.

“It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits”