WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address as a second-term president Tuesday to focus on an economy that continues to struggle toward recovery and to lobby for better gun laws to stem the tide of violence that claimed two more student lives in Maryland.

“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”

His administration released a package of job training, business incentives and education reforms designed to produce jobs, provide cleaner energy and improve the nation’s rusting infrastructure.

The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans now hold nearly 75 percent of the country’s net worth, according to a July 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, while the rest of the country’s wealth share has declined. Meanwhile the national unemployment rate stubbornly hovers around 8 percent, down from its high of 10 percent in 2009.

Maryland’s unemployment rate stands at 6.6 percent, below the national average and down from a recent high of 8 percent in October 2009.

Obama called the sequester — a series of automatic federal spending cuts — a “really bad idea” that both parties need to work together to resolve.

Obama called reducing the deficit a priority of his next term, but added that “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.” He stressed that all the proposals he is putting forward will not increase the deficit.

Maryland’s Democrat-dominated congressional delegation supported Obama’s economic plans.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, called the speech, “terrific, very strong in its tone and its substance,” and said that the president called for “bread and butter investments.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, called the speech “comprehensive,” and said it clearly laid out his agenda.

In a statement, Sen. Ben Cardin said he agreed with the president and added, “Congress cannot fail the American people by making them victims of reckless inaction. Sequestration will have a devastating impact on our economy and we cannot let it happen.”

A statement from Gov. Martin O’Malley praised Obama’s “balanced approach” to taking on the nation’s economic problems, “where eliminating government waste and cutting spending responsibly are paired with investments in core priorities like promoting innovation, improving our schools, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.”

The state’s lone Republican congressman, however, did not see the speech the same way. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville said the president failed to present specifics.

“He spent a lot of time talking about climate change and gun control and gave precious little details on how to solve our nation’s economic problems,” Harris said. “I thought that the president was going to actually respond to what America wants to hear now, which is how are we going to get out of the recession, how are we going to solve our economic problems, how are we going to delay the sequester…”

Obama ended his address with a reiteration of his call for gun control, specifically calling for bans on “weapons of war” and “massive ammunition magazines” like the ones used in the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 28 dead, including 20 schoolchildren.

These measures deserve a vote, Obama said, “because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”

The discussion is a timely one for Maryland, which saw two students killed in a neighborhood near the University of Maryland, College Park early Tuesday in what police are calling a murder-suicide. A semi-automatic Uzi was found at the scene, along with rounds of ammunition.

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight,” Obama said. “But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can…”

Obama announced in January 23 executive actions he plans to take to stem the tide of gun violence, including an allocation of federal research funds to study its causes.

Rep. John Delaney, D-Potomac, said, “Obviously what he did on gun safety is necessary and important. And I thought his timing on bringing that at the end of the speech was the right approach.”

Several Maryland lawmakers at the federal level have been actively working for gun control. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, is a chief co-sponsor of a bipartisan federal gun trafficking bill and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, just spoke at the March on Washington For Gun Control.

Van Hollen Tuesday was joined at the president’s speech by Carole Price, whose 13 year-old-son was accidentally shot and killed by a young neighbor in 1998. Since then, Price has been a gun safety advocate in Maryland, lobbying successfully for “child-proof gun legislation” in 2002.

Maryland had another tie to Obama’s State of the Union speech. High school student Jack Andraka, of Crownsville was one of 23 invited guests in First Lady Michelle Obama’s private box. Andraka won the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for creating a dip-stick sensor for cancer, and was recognized by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley in his State of the State address last month.

Capital News Service reporters Allison Goldstein, Angela Harvey, Nicole Macon and Yagana Shah contributed to this report.

Jeremy Barr

Capital News Service