WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama urged Congress to take on his ambitious second-term agenda of job growth, immigration reform and gun control in a sweeping State of the Union address on Tuesday.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” Obama said to a joint session of Congress.

Obama’s fourth State of the Union speech comes after a successful re-election campaign that emboldened the president. His approval rating has returned to the high water mark it hit after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.

Obama entered the House of Representatives chamber shortly after 9 p.m., working his way down the center aisle, shaking hands with members of Congress who staked out the coveted aisle seats hours before the address.

He warmly greeted Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican who took Obama’s old Senate seat and has just returned to Capitol Hill as he recovers from a stroke.

“The state of the union is strong,” the president said.

An underlying theme in the hour-long address was the economy and job creation, specifically the state of America’s middle class as the country continues to suffer from a stagnant unemployment rate that has hovered near eight percent for a year.

“A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said.

Investment in energy is critical to job creation, Obama said. He also wants a new effort to combat climate change in the face of what  he called “the overwhelming judgment of science.”

“Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it,” the president said. “As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”

Obama also spent time hammering Congress on another fiscal issue — looming, automatic budget cuts that threaten to kill thousands of jobs and bring years of recession.

More than $1 trillion in across-the-board budget cuts are scheduled to kick in at the end of the month, unless lawmakers act to prevent them. So far, there’s no deal on a more agreeable package of spending reductions to head off the sequestration.

In his speech, Obama dismissed Republican efforts to replace defense cuts with reductions in social programs as “even worse” than sequestration itself. He called for a package of savings through reform of the tax system and entitlement spending.

“We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful,” the president said.

Obama said he wants to enact reforms that will help cut the cost of Medicare, going further than the Affordable Care Act, his reform plan, in improving rising health care costs.

“The politics will be hard for both sides,” Obama said. “None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.  But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans.”

Perhaps the most memorable moment came as Obama addressed gun violence.

Following the Newtown elementary school massacre, Obama signed 23 executive orders on gun control. He also asked Congress to pass new laws recommended by Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun violence, specifically a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and the implementation of universal background checks on gun buyers.

“If you want to vote no, that’s your choice,” Obama said. “But these proposals deserve a vote. 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.”

Emotions in the chamber heightened as Obama also invoked recent tragedies in Colorado and Wisconsin, as well as the wounding of former Rep. Gabby Giffords and the murder of Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton.  They all “deserved a vote,” he said, to a standing ovation and thundering applause.

Pendleton’s parents joined First Lady Michelle Obama in the House of Representatives gallery. Lawmakers invited more than 30 survivors of gun violence – and families of victims — to attend the speech.

On immigration, Obama echoed the pro-reform themes from his inaugural address.

He promised during his 2008 campaign that he would deliver immigration reform within his first year in office. That didn’t happen, but the issue is gaining steam as the president begins his second term.

“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts,” he said. “Now let’s get this done.  Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away”

The president also announced plans to bring home 34,000 troops from Afghanistan by this time next year, which would cut the current fighting force by about half. Reductions will continue through the end of 2014, meeting Obama’s goal to end the combat mission within two years.

In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., criticized Obama, arguing for smaller government, and implied today’s problems are caused by expanded bureaucracy under Obama.

“The idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hard-working middle class taxpayers — that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried,” Rubio said. “More government isn’t going to help you get ahead. It’s going to hold you back.”

Obama plans to take his message on the road later this week as he tries to build support for his second-term agenda. He will stump in Asheville, N.C., Chicago and Atlanta to spell out new economic proposals, the White House announced earlier this week.


Kris Anne Bonifacio contributed to this report.