Obama to announce large Afghan troop pullout

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama will announce the pullout of nearly half of American forces still in Afghanistan and denounce North Korea's latest nuclear test Tuesday in his State of the Union speech, an annual address to a joint session of Congress that is bitterly divided over his dramatic plans to shift domestic policy on taxes, spending, gun control and investment in the country's crumbling infrastructure.

The highly anticipated announcement on the next phase of the Afghanistan troop withdrawal will cut the size of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by more than half by a year from now. The drawdown of 34,000 forces puts the U.S. on pace to formally finish the war by the end of 2014.

While Obama is expected to focus the bulk of his prime-time address on the economy and job creation, foreign policy grabbed the spotlight after North Korea said it successfully detonated a nuclear device Tuesday in defiance of U.N. warnings.

"The president will say that the only way North Korea will rejoin the world community is if they stop these threats and live up to their international obligations," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.

On domestic issues, Obama hopes he can encourage lawmakers to join him in reforming laws on gun ownership, immigration and boosting taxes to raise government spending power. The president's priorities also include easing back on spending cuts and addressing climate change.

Aware of the partisan gridlock gripping Washington, Obama is banking on his popularity and the political capital from his convincing re-election in November as he calls on Americans to join him in his vision for what he calls a fairer country with greater opportunity for all.

With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and exerting influence in the Democratic-controlled Senate, Obama plans immediately afterward to make a two-day, three-state foray to take his message directly to the American people. Congress fought the president to a near standstill on virtually every White House initiative during his first term -- though he succeeded in overhauling the health care system.

In his second term, Obama has decided that he may stand a better chance of moving his agenda through Congress by drawing support from outside the capital rather than from within.

Massive federal spending cuts that will hit the U.S. economy on March 1 if a compromise isn't hammered out with Congress will surely color Obama's speech like nothing else. Some economists predict those cuts could push the United States back into recession even before it has fully recovered from the Great Recession -- the most serious economic downturn in more than 70 years.

The cuts will slice deeply into spending for the Pentagon and a range of social programs. Obama says he wants "a balanced approach" to tackling the spiraling deficit with a mix of increased tax revenue and cuts in spending.

The opposition declares it will not give ground on raising taxes.

While the deep cuts, which grew out of a failure to reach a deal in 2011, were conceived as a blow to the budget that is unacceptable to both parties, some Republicans are threatening to let it go forward if Obama does not agree to big cuts in the so-called social safety net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, which provide health care and other assistance to the elderly and poor, as well as Social Security retirement benefits.

Obama also was expected to refocus on creating jobs in a country where the unemployment rate remains at nearly 8 percent. He failed to address the issue in any depth in his inaugural address, leaving his political opponents an opening to criticize him for ignoring an issue of over-riding importance.

Obama also is deeply invested in pushing for new laws aimed at curbing gun violence. Spurred by the mass shooting in December at a Connecticut school that killed 20 children and six adults, Obama and like-minded Democrats are pushing for tougher regulations requiring universal background checks for gun buyers and bans on military-style assault weapons and high-volume ammunition magazines.

He will no doubt return to the issue Tuesday night in the face of angry opposition from the National Rifle Association gun rights lobbying group, many Republicans and even some moderate Democrats. They say any change in gun laws would violate the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms.

Another presidential priority -- and possibly the most likely to succeed in getting passed by Congress -- is granting illegal residents a pathway to citizenship as part of an overhaul immigration reform. The initiative is deeply unpopular in many House Republicans' districts, but it has the support

of some prominent Republican lawmakers who understand that their party needs to soften its stance on immigration if it is to win crucial Hispanic votes.

Obama will face continuing opposition to any proposal he puts forward in an effort to curb climate change. Given that any major climate bill is unlikely to pass the divided Congress, the White House has said Obama intends to move forward on issuing rules to control carbon emissions from power plants as he relies increasingly on his executive authority instead.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a fast-rising Republican star, was picked by the party's mainstream leadership to give its traditional response immediately after Obama speaks. The first-term Cuban-American senator is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Sen. Rand Paul of the Republicans' tea party wing, a loose collection of lawmakers determined above all else to shrink government and lower taxes, plans to give an unofficial response.

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