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US stands with terror victims across the world: Obama

WASHINGTON: Washington stands side-by-side with victims of terror around the world, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday, asking lawmakers to give him updated war powers to defeat Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

“We stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists —  from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris,” Obama said in the country’s annual State of the Union address.

“We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks.”

He was speaking just days after Islamist attacks in the French capital at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in a street attack on police and a hostage-taking in a Jewish supermarket left 17 dead.

He also denounced what he said was the “deplorable anti-Semitism” on the rise in some parts of the world.

As Obama mentioned the shocking attack on Charlie Hebdo, in which many of France’s best-loved cartoonists were gunned down, US lawmakers rose to their feet to pay tribute, some waving yellow pencils.

Democratic Representative Gwen Moore led the show of support in which about 40 lawmakers — mainly Democrats — held up standard pencils, tools of the cartoonists’ art..

Moore’s office called the symbolic event a “unique opportunity to join our global partners in showing our collective support and solidarity.”

Obama also asked US lawmakers to give him updated war powers to use American military might to go after the Islamic State (IS) group, saying it would give his administration the authority it needs.

“This effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed,” he vowed.

The US has already unleashed dozens of airstrikes against the militants since September, using the powers enshrined in legislation adopted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to hunt down Al-Qaeda.

But US officials have argued that a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) is needed.

“Tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” Obama said.

But he stressed US officials “reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

Obama also denounced that “deplorable anti-Semitism” was again being seen in places around the world.

And he added: “We continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims,  the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace.”

‘SHADOW OF CRISIS HAS PASSED’

He declared that America has turned the page on years of war and economic hardship, in a populist-tinged State of the Union address that set up the battle to succeed him.

Emboldened by a stronger economy and better approval ratings, Obama called for a new chapter in US history that ushers in a fairer economy with a better shake for the middle class.

“We are 15 years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world,” he said.

“It has been, and still is, a hard time for many. But tonight, we turn the page.”

“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” Obama said, claiming credit for ending the “Great Recession.”

He heralded the “growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production” that have also helped revive his political fortunes as his time in the White House nears its end.

For six years Obama’s presidency was often subsumed by an economic crisis that stymied efforts to narrow inequality and put other liberal policy priorities on the back burner.

Appealing to Democrats determined to retain the White House in 2016, Obama on Tuesday called for an increase in the minimum wage, equal pay for women and tax breaks for the middle class.

Drawing a stark contrast with tax-averse Republicans, he dared his foes to oppose proposed tax hikes for the rich that would pay for middle class breaks.

“We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.”

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” he asked.

Obama’s Republican opponents have branded such talk as little more than class warfare and will use their majority in both houses of Congress to make sure the plans never become law.

Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who was tasked with rebutting Obama’s speech, said Americans are still suffering from “stagnant wages and lost jobs.”

She also decried Obama’s “failed policies” and a “stale mind-set” that led to “political talking points, not serious solutions.”

“We’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget — with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the President has proposed.”

INCOME EQUALITY: THE NEXT BATTLEGROUND

US President can claim credit for bringing the economy back from the edge of catastrophe.

But on Tuesday he turned his focus to a glaring failure of the recovery: While the wealthy are now wealthier than ever, the average American has not seen any rebound in his wages since the 2008 crisis.

In his annual State of the Union address, Obama vowed to take on rising income equality, two months after frustrated voters dealt his Democratic Party a resounding defeat in Congressional elections.

Obama called for higher taxes on the very rich, more tax breaks for middle class families, an increase in the minimum wage and better workplace benefits to strengthen household incomes.

Touting a new “middle class economics for the 21st century”, he demanded: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well, or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

The issue has long been on the boil. The rebound from the 2008 to 2009 recession has put the United States at the forefront of all major economies.

Last year job creation was the strongest since 1999, and the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent, enviable within the G20 group of leading economies.

And yet tens of millions of Americans still need soup kitchens and social handouts to survive.

Workers in fast food chains and huge retailers like Walmart are increasingly taking to the streets to protest bottom-level pay that forces them to work two jobs to make ends meet.

In theory, American workers should be able to demand more money. But the reality is that paychecks have barely risen. In constant dollars the average hourly salary today is barely higher than that of 1964.

Meanwhile, the ultra-rich have steadily accumulated wealth. At the end of the 1970s, the top 0.1 percent of Americans controlled seven percent of the country’s wealth. Today they control 22 percent.

The racial divide is equally stark: white families are on average 14 to 15 times wealthier than blacks and Latinos.

EQUAL PAY FOR WOMEN

US President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass a law guaranteeing equal pay for women, saying it was crucial to helping boost the incomes of struggling families.

“Nothing helps families make ends meet like higher wages,” Obama said in his annual State of the Union speech. “That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.

“Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”

The proposal was part of a list of initiatives Obama called “middle-class economics” aimed at strengthening household incomes and pulling millions of Americans from the edge of poverty.

He told Congress to back plans that would ease cost-of-living pressures on working-class families, including better pay, childcare support and paid sick and maternity leave.

He also urged new laws forcing employers to pay overtime wages to more workers, raise the minimum wage, and provide free community college studies to prepare people for “the new economy.”

“At every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances, and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot,” the president said.

“Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change. That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement .”

The call for an equal wage law for women was rooted in a persistent divergence between what men and women receive for the same jobs.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2011, men earned nearly 18 percent more than women, and other data suggests the gap has not closed since then.

Obama also argued that lack of widespread, affordable childcare is a challenge for families with two working parents.

“It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said.

He added that 43 million Americans have no paid sick leave, making the United States “the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.”

“Things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage  — these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families.”  (AFP)

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