Catholic News Service photo
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner applaud as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 12.
Catholic News Service photo
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner applaud as President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 12.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama set out an agenda in his State of the Union address Feb. 12 that includes many of the social policy items on the wish list of faith-based organizations.

Among them: an increase in the federal minimum wage, a comprehensive immigration reform law, gun control, and protection from budget cuts for Social Security, Medicare and education programs; job-creation initiatives for struggling segments of the population; development of sustainable energy alternatives and "getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected."

Obama's proposal to increase the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $9 and to tie the wage to the inflation rate has long been sought by advocates for the poor and labor organizations. The federal minimum wage was last increased in July 2009. Nineteen states have minimum wage levels higher than the federal rate.

On other economic issues on which Obama touched, a December statement from the coalition of Christian leaders organized under the Circle of Protection banner listed five values the group was asking Congress and the president to adhere to, including:
-- Protect poor and vulnerable people as deficits are reduced.

-- Raise new tax revenue in a manner proportional to the capacity of the people to contribute.

-- Protect tax policies such as the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit that help reduce poverty.

-- Slow the growth of health care costs and find bipartisan solutions for the common good.

The signers included more than 65 heads of denominations, Christian organizations and relief and development agencies, among them the chairmen of two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the president of Catholic Charities USA.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, and one of the organizers of the Circle of Protection, said in a statement that "there was truth tonight in the president's State of the Union message."

Among the "truths" Rev. Wallis cited were that "it's wrong to put most of that burden" for budget cuts on vulnerable seniors through cuts to Medicare or Social Security and that "no one who works full time in the wealthiest nation on earth should have to live in poverty, but have a living wage."

Wallis also talked about job creation, climate change, gun violence, immigration reform, elimination of global poverty, and he concluded that "it's time for the ideological politics of the left and the right to yield to the politics of the common good. And it's time not to trust in our politicians to enact even their best words, but to remember that citizens in social movements of conscience will be necessary to hold our leaders accountable."

To be sure, Obama's address also included goals that have their critics in the faith community, such as his promise to provide equal benefits for same-sex partners of members of the military. And on many of Obama's proposals, Republican members of Congress declined to join in applause and likely will oppose them in Congress.

In the official Republican Party response to the address, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Obama as believing that the economy is "the cause of our problems." He said the president's solutions to every problem "is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."

On one topic, Obama's call for comprehensive immigration reform, the House chamber resonated with sustained bipartisan applause.

A bipartisan panel of senators, including Rubio, is working on the details of immigration reform legislation. Both the House and the Senate have begun hearings on immigration.

The president framed immigration reform as an economic measure.

"Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants," he said. "And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities -- they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

The reform he envisions means, he said, "strong border security," a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and "fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy."

Rubio's reference to immigration reform was brief, and also had an economic basis.

"We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world's best and brightest," he said. "We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."