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From jobs to guns, Obama lays out agenda in State of the Union

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is urging a divided Congress to boost job creation and strengthen the middle class through a package of government-backed proposals.

In his State of the Union address, Obama is calling for increasing the federal minimum wage, spending more to fix the nation's roads and bridges, and expanding early childhood education.

The president is also pledging to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in half within a year.

Obama says his proposals would not increase the deficit "by a single dime." But with unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, he is pressing a progressive case for Washington's role in reigniting the economy.

Obama wants an increase in the minimum hourly wage from the current $7.25 to $9 by the end of 2015. Obama also proposes the minimum wage be required to keep pace with inflation.

The current rate took effect in 2009. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wage rates than the federal requirement. Washington state's is highest at $9.19.

The proposal is sure to draw opposition from business groups and congressional Republicans who say higher rates increase costs and reduce employment. The White House says the new wage would raise pay for more than 15 million workers and indirectly help millions more.

Obama wants the rate to increase in stages over three years.

Obama wants all 50 states to provide pre-kindergarten schools for 4-year-olds, a plan that the White House says will result in better prepared students and ultimately a more educated workforce.

Obama's plan would provide federal government support to the states to provide access to preschool for all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.

Obama also wants the federal government to give the states incentives to provide full-day kindergarten.

Obama campaigned in 2008 on a plan for universal pre-school. Advocates say such a plan results in improved student test scores and reduced spending on government assistance programs. Skeptics say that evidence of positive results is limited and that preschool can encourage children to spend less time with their parents.

The President says al-Qaida is a "shadow of its former self," and does not pose the kind of threat to America that requires tens of thousands of U.S. troops to fight abroad.

In his address Tuesday, the president said U.S. troops will continue pursuing the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan for a number of years.

He noted that various al-Qaida affiliates have emerged elsewhere in the world in recent years, including in Yemen and Somalia. Instead of sending large numbers of U.S. troops to fight there, he said, the U.S. aim will be to help those countries provide their own security and to help allies fight al-Qaida, as the French have done in the African nation of Mali.

The President is emphasizing the need for more background checks for gun buyers in his State of the Union address, saying that overwhelming majorities of Americans favor the proposal as a way to keep firearms from criminals.

Obama said Tuesday night that senators from both parties are working on legislation to prevent people from legally buying guns and then giving them to criminals.

He said police chiefs want lawmakers to ban "weapons of war" and magazines carrying large amounts of ammunition so law enforcement officers won't be outgunned.

The president proposed all those ideas after the December killings of 20 first-graders in Connecticut. But expanded background checks is the only one he described as having vast support - a description that matches public polling and reflects congressional sentiment too.


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