Obama calls for unity
03:56 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Defense Secretary Panetta says political dysfunction threatens security

President Obama talks up job creation at a North Carolina plant

House Speaker Boehner says the Senate must act first on pending budget cuts

The State of the Union address and GOP response portend more political division

Keeping up pressure on congressional Republicans after his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama launched three days of campaign-style speeches on Wednesday with a visit to a North Carolina manufacturing plant that he said epitomized his proposals for job creation.

Obama toured the Linamar Corporation plant in Asheville before telling workers that Congress should pass his proposals laid out in Tuesday night’s speech that call for more job training and ending tax subsidies that reward sending jobs overseas.

“We’ve got to stop with some of the politics we see in Washington sometimes that focuses on who’s up and who’s down,” he said.

In all ways, the president appears to be “up” after a well-received annual address that continued to define the political and ideological divide with Republicans over the role and size of government, as well as how to reduce chronic federal deficits and rising debt.

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Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, seem “down” as the Washington debate focuses on impending budget cuts mandated by a past agreement with Democrats and the White House to raise the federal debt ceiling.

In the GOP response to Obama’s speech at the Capitol, conservative Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida rolled off a now-familiar list of criticisms of the president’s approach while repeatedly referring to Republican proposals rejected by Democrats.

For both sides, the messaging sounded similar to last year’s election campaign in which Obama won the White House for a second term and Democrats strengthened their Senate majority while narrowing the GOP advantage in the House.

After the November vote, Republicans were forced to concede on one of their most steadfast issues by agreeing to higher tax rates on top income earners as part of a January deal to avoid some of the harshest impacts of the so-called fiscal cliff.

The agreement put off action on mandatory budget cuts, which are set to take effect March 1. While Obama has called for averting them with deficit-reduction steps that would include more tax revenue and spending cuts, Republicans reject new tax revenue increases.

Speaker John Boehner noted Wednesday the House passed bills last year to prevent the cuts – known in Washington jargon as sequestration – from affecting the military, but Senate Democrats never acted.

“It’s time for the Senate to do its job,” he told reporters in criticizing the cuts totaling an estimated $85 billion in 2013 and roughly $1 trillion over the next decade.

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Boehner characterized sequestration as a meat ax approach that would reduce military readiness and cause other problems.

He was expected to send a letter on Wednesday to all House members telling them to prepare for the impact of cuts, which will force all legislators, committees and administrative offices to slash their budgets.

“We’re prepared to deal with it and I would hope that it wouldn’t happen,” Boehner said.

The Pentagon would be expected to absorb about half the cuts, but other agencies are weighing in with their concerns.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned in a letter to a key congressional Democrat that the planned cuts would reduce staffing for border patrol and aviation security as well as disaster response.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday that Congress needs to put aside party and ideological divisions that he called “the greatest concern I have for our national security.”

“We need to find solutions,” Panetta told his final Pentagon news briefing. “We can’t just sit here and bitch; we can’t just sit here and complain; we can’t just sit here and blame others; we can’t just sit here and point fingers at each other; we can’t just sit here and try to get sound bytes; we can’t just sit here and try to make points, political points.”

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Differences between parties, politics and ideology will always be part of Congress, the one-time legislator said, adding the legislative branch was fashioned that way to ensure full debate.

“But there are also some lines that are there that make that process work, lines that involve mutual respect, lines that involve, you know, courtesy and a degree of respect for each other, despite whatever their decisions are,” Panetta continued. “And you kind of see that breaking down in this process. It becomes too personal; it becomes too mean.”

Asked about how the nation is viewed in the world, Panetta said that despite the acknowledged strength of U.S. military power and values, “there is a nervousness out there about whether, in fact, ultimately we can rise to the challenge of governing ourselves and finding answers to the tough issues that we’re confronting.”

In his State of the Union address, Obama challenged Congress to join him in taking on “our generation’s task” to ignite the growth of a “rising, thriving middle class.”

He emphasized economic growth and job creation, and insisted his proposals would not increase the deficit, though the White House offered no price tag for his initiatives.

When asked Wednesday about the measures Obama touted in Asheville, White House officials said existing funds and savings initiatives in the administration’s upcoming budget proposal would cover the cost.

Obama, in his speech on Tuesday, also made an emotional plea for Congress to hold votes on controversial proposals for tougher gun laws after the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings in December that killed 20 schoolchildren.

At the same time, Obama called for legislators to work together for the good of the country, saying Americans “expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.”

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In delivering the Republican response, Rubio repeated longstanding GOP criticism of Obama’s proposals as job-killing, growth-stunting bigger government.

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity,” said Rubio, a tea party favorite considered a rising star in the Republican Party. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems.”

The night of competing messages showed that despite Obama’s election victory in November, hopes for a more pragmatic political climate appeared unrealistic.

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“In many ways, what we heard tonight is the same old, same old argument,” noted CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

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Taking aim at the bitter partisanship of his first term, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to “set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.”

“And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors,” he continued to applause, mainly from Democrats. “The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. We can’t do it. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, and pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”

In a jab at congressional Republicans who seek to shrink deficits and government through spending cuts, he said “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”

Rubio’s response blamed Obama for weakening U.S. stability and potential by continued deficit spending and failing to confront needed reforms to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending $1 trillion more than it takes in every year. That’s why we need a balanced budget amendment,” he said, accusing Obama of wanting to leave Medicare unchanged so that it goes bankrupt.

However, Obama called for “modest” reforms to Medicare in his speech, repeating proposals raised in previous deficit-reduction negotiations but regarded by Republicans as insufficient.

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Obama also continued his push for Congress to act on politically volatile issues such as immigration reform. Other measures proposed in the speech included a paycheck fairness act intended to make it easier for women to fight salary discrimination without losing their jobs, raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, developing new alternative energy hubs in the country, and helping people refinance their mortgages at today’s lower interest rates.

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With former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, seriously wounded in a 2011 shooting in her home state of Arizona in the House chamber along with families of other victims of gun violence, Obama continued his push for tighter firearms restrictions.

He mentioned 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago girl killed by gun violence after returning home from taking part in inauguration activities in Washington, saying she was shot a mile from his home in the city.

The girl’s parents were guests of first lady Michelle Obama at the address. Also attending was former rock star Ted Nugent, a vocal critic of Obama and any efforts to strengthen gun controls.

Obama cited the major provisions of his package of gun proposals, including background checks on all firearms sales, a ban on semi-automatic weapons that mimic military weapons, and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.

In the most emotional moment of the speech, he listed people whose lives have been “torn apart by gun violence.” They included Pendleton’s parents, Giffords, and the families of the Newtown victims.

Obama repeatedly insisted “they deserve a vote” as the audience cheered loudly.

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But the powerful National Rifle Association and legislators from both parties oppose key provisions of Obama’s plan.

Rubio echoed the NRA position that “unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to” reduce gun violence.

Meanwhile, NRA President David Keene conceded there would be votes on some issues, but he accused Obama of playing up the emotional side of the issue to try to force through gun control laws before they can be properly debated.

On foreign policy, Obama announced that this time next year, another 34,000 U.S. troops will have returned home from Afghanistan. The move will reduce by more than half the current force level there of 66,000 troops as Afghan forces prepare to take the lead in combat missions. The plan is for all U.S. combat troops to leave by the end of 2014.

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On climate change, Obama promised executive action if Congress failed to address what he called a litany of evidence that the nation and the world face such as more frequent and powerful storms, wildfires and drought.

On cybersecurity, Obama signed an order on Tuesday making it easier for private companies controlling critical infrastructure to share information about cyber attacks with the government. In return, the government will share certain information with companies about attacks believed to be occurring or that are about to take place.

Congress has failed to pass any of the dozens of bills aimed at meaningfully securing critical infrastructure from cyber attack.

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Rubio is promoted as the new face of the Republican Party due to his Hispanic heritage and strong communications skills.

Obama won overwhelming support from the Latino vote in defeating GOP challenger Mitt Romney in the November election.

Rubio is leading an effort by some Republicans to shift party policy on immigration reform by accepting the concept backed by Obama and Democrats that the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants should have a path to legal status.

However, he neglected to mention specifics of an immigration reform plan in his response Tuesday night.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jessica Yellin, Mark Preston, Kevin Liptak, Ashley Killough, Greg Botelho, Dana Bash, Jim Acosta and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.