by Mauro Whiteman, Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday renewed calls for comprehensive immigration reform and action on economic opportunity, including an increased minimum wage and extended unemployment insurance benefits.
But Republicans in Arizona’s congressional delegation quickly attacked the speech not just for what the president wants to do but how he vowed to do it.
Obama said he would act without approval from Congress “wherever and whenever I can … to expand opportunity for more American families” — a vow that was called unconstitutional by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott.
Gosar, noting that the president taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said, “If I’m one of his students, I want my money back, and he definitely doesn’t deserve tenure on that.”
But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said he was “extremely happy” with the speech and with the president’s promise to speak “directly to the American people.”
“The president was strong,” Grijalva said in an interview on MSNBC after the speech. “He went over Congress’ head to deal with issues of voter registration, the minimum wage, Iran and diplomacy, climate change and using the Antiquities Act to conserve important areas — very strong, saying this office will work with the American people to make it better.”
Those were just some of the topics in the 65-minute speech, which was interrupted 76 times by applause and by a chant of “U.S.A.” when Obama told the U.S. Olympic team to “bring home the gold.”
Most of the applause came from Democrats, but senators and House members of all political stripes stood and gave a nearly two-minute standing ovation to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Arizona native who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan.
Remsburg, who was in the gallery with his father as guests of the first lady, provided the emotional climax to Obama’s address as the president described the soldier’s long recovery.
“Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said.
The Remsburgs were among the five Arizonans in the first lady’s box, and two of the three highlighted by the president in his speech. Obama also talked about Amanda Shelley, a physician’s assistant from Gilbert who was able to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act despite a pre-existing medical condition.
Much of the speech focused on economic opportunity, and Democrats in the Arizona delegation said they welcomed the focus on the economy and jobs — though few were as enthusiastic as Grijalva.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, said in a prepared statement that many of his constituents are concerned about the need for a climate to create jobs.
“The president addressed some of this concern tonight, but there’s much more to do,” Barber said in the statement.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said the president’s message of opportunity and support for education reminded her of her own rise out of poverty.
“When he talked about creating opportunity and education, it took me back to when I was living in poverty and lifted myself out with education,” she said. “I want that for all Americans.”
But Gosar said Obama’s economic proposals showed the president’s lack of understanding of how the economy works.
“Government doesn’t create jobs. Government builds an environment … to create jobs,” Gosar said.
That was echoed by Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, who said in a prepared statement that the president has remained “tone-deaf and unwilling to listen to the American people.” Instead of threatening to take executive action, Salmon said the president should put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to take up jobs bills that the House has passed.
Obama once again asked Congress to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform, a recurring request from his previous speeches. The Senate passed a reform bill last year, but action stalled in the House.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he was “pleased” the president still supports immigration reform. But Flake — who with fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was part of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that produced the Senate immigration bill — also said Obama’s plan for “circumventing Congress won’t foster job creation and won’t result in economic growth.”
“President Obama’s pen won’t put Americans back to work,” Flake said. “Sound fiscal policy, not more government and gimmicks, will.”
Cronkite News Service reporters Jillian Idle, Colton Gavin, Mackenzie Scott and Whitney Ogden contributed to this report.