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President Barack Obama departs the House Chamber following his Sate of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Addressing a gridlocked Congress that represents a deeply divided nation, President Barack Obama delivered a strong State of the Union address Tuesday that focused primarily on fixing the nation's ailing economy and lowering a worrisome unemployment rate.

Both are easier said than done, but we agree with that emphasis. The economy should not just dominate Obama's once-a-year speech. It must be the one area where he and Congress hammer out practical compromises.

While the speech focused on economics, Obama also formally announced his decision to bring home 34,000 of the 66,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan by this time next year.

Like any president who has just been convincingly re-elected, Obama was bold and confident laying out his vision for the next year. But several times he asked for bipartisan partnership to advance the nation. Unfortunately, we feel that could be more hope than change.

The president also implored Congress to implement comprehensive and reasonable immigration reform. He is right about the need, and the political winds suggest that timing may also be right to make some progress.

Obama hammered on the familiar campaign theme of strengthening the nation's middle class through programs that would help create jobs, and he proposed spending more public money on education, manufacturing and infrastructure.


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"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth -- a rising, thriving middle class,'' Obama said.

But he insisted that his economic proposals would not involve any increase in spending and would not make government bigger.

"Let me repeat -- nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth," the president said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who delivered the Republicans' formal response, also effectively took issue with the president, not so much on his vision for bettering the middle class but on how to accomplish it.

"Presidents in both parties ... have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity," Rubio said. "But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems."

Obama also used the speech to eloquently lobby Congress and the nation for tougher gun laws. To that end, Obama invoked the tragic December shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. as well as a story of the young teenager who had performed at his inauguration and was later gunned down in a Chicago park.

The president also had invited former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was nearly fatally wounded in a one-man rampage at a shopping center in Tucson.

He made powerful and effective use of the moment by telling Congress that the victims of these acts of violence at least deserved a vote. Obama is right about the need for a vote on each proposal. The debate is too important to hide behind procedural gimmicks.

In the end, it was an effective State of the Union speech and a thoughtful response. Now, if only we could transfer that to the everyday debate.