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February 2013 Archives

WASHINGTON--Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is taking on bullying; offering, with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa,) a bill to prevent bullying and harassment in schools. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools and districts that receive federal funding to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment," his office said in a release.

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama came home to Chicago to unveil Thursday her newest "Let's Move" initiative; however, her White House press operation declined to allow any Chicago news outlet into her press pool while she was in the city.

Mrs. Obama wrapped up a three-city, two day trip marking the third anniversary of her signature "Let's Move" project, arriving back in Washington on Thursday night.

Her press team had five outlets in her pool for this swing: the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times, news organizations that routinely do White House travel. Mrs. Obama's press team also had two other outlets in her pool, and

WASHINGTON--House Democratic hopeful Robin Kelly, who clinched the nomination Tuesday for former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. seat, guests on MSNBC's ""The Rachel Maddow Show" Thursday night. This is Kelly's first national interview following her primary win.

The show is live, 9-10 P.M. ET; that's 8-9 P.M. Chicago time. Kelly won with the gun issue and a $2.2 million assist from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's SuperPac.

My column on Bloomberg's intervention in the Illinois race--and his determination to take more shots at the National Rifle Association-- is HERE

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama hits McCormick Place on Thursday morning on her "Let's Move" anti-obesity third anniversary tour where she will be joined by tennis champ Serena Williams and other sports figures to urge more physical activity for kids in schools. For details, click over to

ON THE HOMEFRONT: Mrs. Obama arrived in Chicago on Wednesday night, traveling from Mississippi, where she highlighted healthy school meals. ABC7 News reported that Mrs. Obama overnighted at the family Kenwood home after dining with a friend at RPM Italian, the River North eatery.

This is Mrs. Obama's second visit to Chicago this month. She returned earlier for the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old gunned down in a park about a mile from their Kenwood house.

From the White House: "First Lady Michelle Obama will return to her hometown of Chicago to make a major announcement to bring physical activity back to schools. The First Lady will be joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, NIKE, Inc. President & CEO Mark Parker, Dominique Dawes, Gabby Douglas, Allyson Felix, Bob Harper, Bo Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Sarah Reinertsen, Paul Rodriguez, Serena Williams, a surprise musical guest and thousands of Chicago area teachers and students at the event hosted by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation."

WASHINGTON -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team running his antigun SuperPAC drove Robin Kelly to victory -- and demolished chief rival Debbie Halvorson--in a $2.2 million campaign they said Wednesday was merely a taste of what they have in store for the National Rifle Association.

"Is it a harbinger of things to come? I think so. This is the public speaking," Bloomberg said outside the White House when I asked him about Kelly's win Tuesday in the Democratic primary the seat vacated by disgraced Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

"The one who won, who I have never met, never talked to, she has been stand-up on understanding the problem," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to map strategy to prod Congress to pass measures to curb gun violence. He also met with four senators, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) who is a lead on a gun trafficking bill.

Earlier in the day, the top two strategists for Bloomberg's Independence USA SuperPAC -- Bill Knapp and pollster Doug Schoen -- dissected Kelly's win, charting how Kelly's ratings rose and Halvorson's sank after massive buys for four television ads and nine direct mail pieces targeting Democratic primary voters in the South Side and south suburban 2nd Congressional District.

Three polls guided their work, with the result Tuesday night, Kelly 52 percent to 24 percent for Halvorson. Spending was about $2,237,486.

If you wonder why consultants use negative attacks, it is because they work: Two of the spots and seven direct mail pieces were hits against Halvorson.

Bloomberg's SuperPAC, with the Illinois win, now has a case study for other elected officials to ponder. The Illinois contest was "the first time that the issue of gun safety has been fought as a central election issue," Schoen said.

Indeed, unlike most congressional races, it became the only issue, one Kelly seized on early.

The takeaways: For wobbly incumbents who want to vote for gun-violence curbs, Bloomberg's SuperPAC has their backs if the NRA comes after them; for contenders like Kelly who have clear, loud messages regarding guns, there is a SuperPAC ready to swoop in, and for incumbents or former elected officials like Halvorson who have been in with the NRA -- well, watch out.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. Given the district, Halvorson would not have been a reliable NRA vote and their PAC overseers could see that while she was against an assault weapon ban, she was for universal background checks, Kirk's gun trafficking bill and limiting the number of bullets in a magazine.

The NRA did not put any money in the race.

Said Bloomberg, "They are probably sorry they didn't."

Bloomberg said he did not consult with Mayor Rahm Emanuel about the intervention of his SuperPac in the race. Emanuel did not take a role in the primary.

WASHINGTON--New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose anti-gun SuperPAC was instrumental in Robin Kelly's Democratic primary win, said Wednesday her victory showed it is possible to match--and better-- the political influence of the National Rifle Association.

"Is it a harbinger of things to come? I think so. This is the public speaking," Bloomberg said outside the White House--where he met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden--when I asked him about Kelly's Tuesday victory.

Bloomberg's Independence USA SuperPac spent about $2.2 million in the campaign leading up to the Tuesday primary for television ads and direct mail pieces mainly aimed at former Rep. Debbie Halvorson who ran in previous contests with NRA support.

The gun issue dominated the race.

The NRA did not put any money in the contest to replace disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in the heavily Democratic district.

"They are probably sorry they didn't," Bloomberg said.

Kelly clinched with 52 percent of the vote to Halvorson's 24 percent.With only nominal GOP opposition in the April general election, the primary win is tantamount to victory.

Doug Schoen, the pollster for Bloomberg's Independence USA said earlier on Wednesday, "It was a defeat for the NRA" and from now on candidates will have to "think twice" before they kowtow to the NRA."

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) became a leading critic against Chuck Hagel, voting against his confirmation as Defense Secretary on Tuesday. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) supported Hagel.

In a statement, Kirk said, "Sen. Hagel's past views and statements place him far outside the bipartisan mainstream on key issues like Iran sanctions, European designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

"During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Hagel instinctively called the Iranian government both elected and legitimate. He initially offered strong support for containment of Iran, rather than President Obama's stated policy of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. He could not clearly explain his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran - opposition as recent as 2008. And at no time did he state his position on whether the European Union should formally designate Iran's terror proxy, Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization - a critical step to cut off the flow of funds to a group responsible for the murders of some 280 American citizens.

"While I appreciate and respect Sen. Hagel's record of service to our country, especially as a decorated combat veteran, I cannot support his nomination."

WASHINGTON--The Senate confirmed former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as Defense Secretary on Tuesday on a 58-41 vote. The Illinois senators split on the confirmation, with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin for Hagel and GOP Sen. Mark Kirk against.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Senate voted 71-27 to override a filibuster threat, clearing the way for his confirmation vote. With the 55 Senate Democrats backing him--and only a majority vote needed--his confirmation was guaranteed.

Hagel's confirmation stalled on Feb. 14 falling short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Senate rules allowed for a second chance.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) a strong Hagel opponent--critical of Hagel's views on Iran sanctions, voted not to advance Hagel's nomination. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voted for Hagel. The Senate entire roll call to erase the filibuster threat is HERE.

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WASHINGTON--Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) will be confirmed as Defense Secretary, with the Senate voting 71-27 on Tuesday to override a filibuster threat, clearing the way for his confirmation vote. With the 55 Senate Democrats backing him--and only a majority vote needed--his confirmation is guaranteed.

Hagel's confirmation stalled on Feb. 14 falling short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Senate rules allowed for a second chance.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) a strong Hagel opponent--critical of Hagel's views on Iran sanctions, voted not to advance Hagel's nomination. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voted for Hagel. The Senate entire roll call is HERE.

WASHINGTON--House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is pushing back Tuesday against President Barack Obama essentially blaming him for the deadlock that may result Friday in the sequester kicking-in--the start of a series of automatic federal spending cuts. Boehner said it is time the Senate gets "off their ass and begins to do something."

Obama is in Newport News, Va. today--to highlight Defense Department cuts to occur if Congress does not act.

In the Capitol, Boehner accused Obama of using soldiers as "props."

Said Boehner, "But I don't think the president's focused on trying to find a solution to the sequester. The president has been traveling all over the country, and today going down to Newport News, in order to use our military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally to support his tax hikes.

"Now, the American people know if the president gets more money, they're just going to spend it. And the fact is, is that he's gotten his tax hikes. It's time to focus on the real problem here in Washington, and that is spending.

"The president has known for 16 months that this sequester was looming out there when the supercommittee failed to come to an agreement. And so for 16 months, the president's been traveling all over the country holding rallies, instead of sitting down with Senate leaders in order to try to forge an agreement over there in order to move the bill. We have moved the bill in the House twice. We should not have to move a third bill before the Senate gets off their ass and begins to do something."

WASHINGTON--Seeking to head off any loosening of sanctions on Iran, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are leading a drive to urge the European Union to close loopholes allowing the nation to get access to Euros.

The letter from the senators--signed by 34 of their colleagues--comes as, the Jerusalem Post noted, "Major powers will offer Iran some sanctions relief during talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this week if Tehran agrees to curb its nuclear program, a US official said on Monday."

Kirk has long been involved in Iran sanction issues aimed at preventing the nation from gaining access to nuclear weapons.

Below, the text of the letter....

February 25, 2013

His Excellency Herman Van Rompuy

President of the European Council

Rue de la Loi 175

B-1048 Brussels

CC: Mario Draghi, President, European Central Bank

Dear President Van Rompuy:

The United States and the European Union (EU) share a common goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Together, we have implemented the most comprehensive sanctions regime against one country in history - imposing sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, disconnecting Iranian banks from financial messaging services, prohibiting the supply of metals to Iran, enacting human rights sanctions and more.

But while American and European sanctions are hurting Iran's economy - dramatically cutting oil revenues and devaluing the currency - the regime continues to flout its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and refuses to halt its enrichment activities in compliance with multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. Time is not on our side. As Iran improves its enrichment capabilities, the regime inches closer to an undetectable nuclear breakout capability. That is why we are writing to request your immediate support in closing a significant loophole in US-EU sanctions policy.

As you know, financial institutions, companies and investors affiliated with the Iranian Government, including the Central Bank of Iran, maintain bank accounts around the world filled with euros. Reports suggest that Iran uses these reserves to circumvent the total impact of American and European sanctions by converting its foreign-held euros into local currencies via the European Central Bank's (ECB) Trans-European Automated Realtime Gross Settlement Express Transfer or "Target2" system. We are concerned that these euro conversions in turn free up significant funds to finance Iranian imports, stabilize Iran's monthly budget and allows the regime to continue to engage in sanctionable and illicit activities.

While we understand officials at the ECB want to take action to render Iran's foreign-held euros non-functional, they are waiting for an order from the EU Council to proceed. Therefore, we strongly urge you to take all necessary measures to immediately cut off Iran's ability to use its foreign-held euros by prohibiting direct or indirect access to Target2 services by or on behalf of accounts owned or controlled by the Government of Iran or its affiliates. Such an action would be consistent with the ECB's guidelines - which explicitly prohibit access to Target2 for entities engaged in "money-laundering and the financing of terrorism, proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems" - and would bring the EU into alignment with American policy vis-à-vis Iranian access to the dollar.

Though we recognize and appreciate the narrow mandate by which the ECB operates and respect the independence of this institution, we believe we all have a role to play in ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. It is critical that the U.S. and Europe present a strong, unified front with respect to Iran's nuclear program. As we approach yet another round of low-level discussions with Iran in Kazakhstan next week, Iran is feeling the effects of international sanctions. Yet it still refuses to engage in serious negotiations over its nuclear program. We will need to maintain and increase pressure if diplomacy has a hope of succeeding.

Thank you for your time, your consideration, and your continued leadership in deepening our transatlantic ties.


WASHINGTON--Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is her for meetings of the National Association of Attorney Generals. With her newfound interest in running for Illinois governor, this is a good time to resurrect a standing nickname for the group, National Association of Aspiring Governors. This is a joke, everyone.

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama on a swing to promote the third anniversary of her "Let's Move" program--she hits Chicago on Thursday--told ABC's Robin Robert she is determined to be "breaking out" in the next four years.

Mrs. Obama spoke about her anti-childhood obesity project, the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton near the family Kenwood home, Malia becoming a teen-ager and her yearning--she was joking-- to shake her Secret Service agents, put on a disguise and go shopping.

"Going to Target for me is like a dream, you know? That one time I went, you noticed it created a stir. I'm gonna do it again, doggone it," Mrs. Obama said in the ABC interview, broadcast on Tuesday.

"Next four years, I'm going out. I'm breaking out. I'm gonna disguise Bo. I'm gonna put on a coat. I'm gonna take a walk, and my agents won't know a thing. Don't tell 'em," she joked.

Oldest daughter Malia turns 15 in July and Roberts noted how President Barack Obama had joked about her starting to date.

Roberts asked, "Is he really concerned about that?

Replied Mrs. Obama, "No. I mean, I think he likes to -- you know, fathers, in particular, I don't think they really know how they're going to feel until it happens. You know, there's nothing like the look on his face when Malia dresses up for a party and she's heading out and she walks past. She walks past him, and you can see his face sort of just drop. It's like, "What was that?"

"You know, he's a little gray. People think the gray is from his job. It's from his children. So we'll see how that goes."

Mrs. Obama and White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett returned to Chicago on Feb. 9 to attend Hadiya Pendleton's funeral.

On her death and gun violence, Mrs. Obama said,"Hadiya was an honor student. One of the things her mother said at this funeral, she said, you know, "I did everything I was supposed to do." And she was absolutely right. She did everything she was supposed to do. She was standing out in a park with her friends in a neighborhood blocks away from where my kids grew up, where our house is, and she was caught in the line of fire.

"I just don't want to keep disappointing our kids in this country. I want them to know that we put them first."

WASHINGTON--The Illinois special primary to replace scandalized former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is today and in this heavily Democratic district, the winner will cruise to victory in the April 9 general election. Will New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg come out the victor in this contest? His SuperPac emerged as the major player.

Polls close at 7 p.m. Central Time. For election results tonight, click over to >

WASHINGTON--Democrats in the Senate are expected on Tuesday to revive the stalled nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be Defense Secretary, setting the stage for his confirmation.

Hagel's confirmation stalled on Feb. 14 falling short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Senate rules allow for a second chance.

What happens next: Two votes, first to get rid of a filibuster threat and the second on Hagel's confirmation, where a simple majority is all that is needed.

There are 55 Democrats in the Senate and they are confident they have at least five Republicans who will vote to bury the possibility of a filibuster--even if those Republicans go on to vote against confirmation.

The Feb. 14 roll call was 58-40, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voting to end a GOP filibuster threat and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voting to let it continue. Right before the Feb. 14 Durbin made an impassioned plea from the Senate floor to support President Barack Obama's nomination of Hagel. Kirk has come out strongly against Hagel.

WASHINGTON--Chicago's Phillip Jackson--former CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority and former Chicago Public Schools deputy chief of staff, a veteran of Mayor Richard M. Daley's City Hall, will be honored Tuesday at the White House for his work to further education in the African American community. He is the executive director of the organization he founded, the Black Star Project.

He will be honored as one of ten "champions of change."

"President Obama has made providing a complete and competitive education for all Americans - from cradle to career - a top priority," said Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett in a statement; her governmental roots also stretch back to Chicago's City Hall.

"That's why, last summer, he signed an executive order to establish the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. This week, we look forward to welcoming Champions of Change who have been working to ensure that all African American students receive an education that fully prepares them for high school graduation, college completion, and productive careers."

On Jackson, from the White House: "Phillip Jackson was born into and resided in public housing in Chicago. Mr. Jackson attended eleven Chicago public schools with varying levels of success. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors with a degree in Philosophy and studied education at National College of Education. In his career, he has served as senior vice president of operations for a large retail book chain; assistant budget director for the City of Chicago; chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools; chief executive officer for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief for education for the City of Chicago; and president and chief executive officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago. He is founder and executive director of The Black Star Project, which works to create globally competitive, globally compassionate, globally cooperative students, parents, families, and communities."

From the White House, on the Champions of Change program: It "was created as a part of President Obama's Winning the Future initiative. Each week, the White House features a group of Americans - individuals, businesses and organizations - who are doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities."

The Sun-Times launched the new "Marin Report" with columnist Carol Marin on Monday.See it below and learn more about this new feature HERE.

WASHINGTON--Acting Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, an Evanston Township High School graduate, hits Chicago on Monday for several events, including a meeting with students and educators at his high school.

From the Treasury Department:

"While in Chicago, Acting Secretary Wolin will deliver remarks at an event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In addition, he will host a roundtable with local leaders and leading business executives; tour a UPS sorting facility and visit with employees participating in UPS' Chicagoland Regional College Program; and meet with students and educators at Evanston Township High School, his alma mater."

Wolin delivers remarks on the economy at 3:00 PM CST at a Chicago Council on Global Affairs event held at The Chicago Club, 81 E. Van Buren St.

WASHINGTON -- An impasse between President Barack Obama and Republicans -- mainly in the House -- continued Sunday, making it more likely automatic federal spending cuts will be triggered Friday, with the "sequester" potentially causing a massive migraine for travelers using O'Hare and Midway Airports.

I picked out the Chicago airports as a leading example of the local impact of Congress and the White House unable to forge a spending deal because so many people -- no matter their income or politics -- fly or have friends or family who do.

This contrived crisis seem familiar? We just went through this over New Year's and in order to avoid the Dec. 31 "fiscal cliff" -- also a manufactured deadline -- Congress postponed the "sequester" until March 1.

There is an enormous amount of blame-gaming going on here, and Obama -- with his popularity high -- has been bashing congressional Republicans in general and the House leadership in particular for not wanting to compromise, figuring they have much more to lose.

Congress in 2011 went along with a White House suggestion to install the draconian, across-the-board domestic and defense spending cuts as a way to force each side to bargain, figuring that sane, rational elected officials would stop the sequester.

In hindsight, that's a lot of LOL.

What's at stake on the home front?

◆ Longer travel times at Midway and O'Hare, starting the first week of April.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday flights to Chicago and other big cities could experience delays of up to 90 minutes at peak hours.

I learned that the potential hit may be harder on O'Hare because one of its three runways could not be used if air traffic controllers have to be pulled from an auxiliary tower to keep the main tower staffed. With fewer controllers, there will be more time between takeoffs and landings. A midnight controller shift could also be eliminated at Midway.

Air travel at regional airports across Illinois could be curtailed or delayed with the furlough of controllers.

On top of that, add almost certain frustrating delays even getting to the gate with a smaller number of Transportation Security Administration personnel.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress on Feb. 14 that fewer TSA personnel means it could take more than one hour to get through security at major airports.

Napolitano said wait times to clear customs at O'Hare and other major international airports -- already two hours at peak -- could swell to more than four hours.

◆ At the Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, four demolition projects planned for this year -- $2 million worth of business -- would be canceled.

◆ Head Start programs in Illinois would be eliminated for 2,700 kids.

◆ Work-study programs for college students would take in 2,650 fewer in Illinois.

"What is true now is Republicans have decided they want the sequester to go into effect," White House communications chief Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday, briefing reporters.

Retorted Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), "the White House needs to spend less time explaining to the press how bad the sequester will be and more time actually working to stop it."

Obama Feb. 25, 2013 week ahead

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First Lady Michelle Obama announces the Best Picture Oscar to Argo live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, Feb. 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance at the Academy Award broadcast announcing the Best Picture live from the White House, with the Oscar going to Argo.

I asked Mrs. Obama's office for the back story and was told by Kristina Schake, her communications director, "The Academy Awards approached the First Lady about being a part of the ceremony. As a movie lover, she was honored to present the award and celebrate the artists who inspire us all - especially our young people - with their passion, skill and imagination."

Mrs. Obama wore a Naeem Khan gown for the announcing chores she shared with actor Jack Nicholson on the Oscar stage.

Shortly after, Mrs. Obama said via Twitter, " It was a thrill to announce the #Oscars2013 best picture winner from the @WhiteHouse! Congratulations Argo!"

Earlier in the evening Mrs. Obama and President Barack Obama hosted the nations governors at their annual White House Dinner. She wore the same gown at that dinner as she did for her Oscar stint, done from the Diplomatic Room. She was flanked by members of the military who also serve as social aides for White House events.

WASHINGTON--Gov. Pat Quinn lands here Saturday to attend the National Governors Association winter meeting, which runs through Monday.

On Sunday evening, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle host a dinner for the governors at the White House. On Monday, the governors meet with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at White House.

Quinn cut a day off of the annual meeting to remain in Illinois; Obama met with Democratic governors on Friday.

"Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," Feb. 23, 2013. Entire show

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama busted some dance moves with Jimmy Fallon, told the talk show host she has her eye on Jay Leno's job when he retires and confessed to watching "Real Housewives" in a Friday appearence booked to highlight the third anniversary of her "Let's Move" anti-childhood obesity campaign.

Mrs. Obama danced with Fallon, dressed as a woman in a hilarious skit titled "Evolution of Mom Dancing."

Chatting with Fallon, Mrs. Obama said she was a "pretty good dancer" and gave President Barack Obama a "B" grade for his moves, faulting him because he will not go outside the "pocket."

Their daughters, Malia and Sasha "try to get us hip to stuff," she said.

Fallon joked about a "Michelle-Hillary" 2016 ticket, a reference to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"You know, I have my eye actually on another job. And I hear that when Jay Leno retires that 'The Tonight Show' position is going to open and I'm thinking about putting my hat in the ring," Mrs. Obama joked back.

Mrs. Obama hits Chicago on Thursday, on the road as party of her "Let's Move" anniversary swing.

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama lets loose, showing off all her dancing moves during one of her segments on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," taping the show Friday to be broadcast tonight. Mrs. Obama is dancing with Fallon, dressed as a woman in a dance skit titled "Evolution of Mom Dancing" and it is hilarious.

"We have one of the best shows we've ever done tonight with the @FLOTUS Michelle Obama, Scarlett Johansson and @TheAvettBros. #LateNight," Fallon said in a Tweet.

WASHINGTON--"President Rahm? Maybe," is the headline over the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza column mulling the pros and cons of a Mayor Rahm Emanuel 2016 White House run. Meanwhile, over at the Drudge Report, a scorching homepage headline "Public Turns on Godfather," pegged to his low ratings in a new Crain's Chicago Business poll.

The Rahm 2016 buzz vaulted to a higher level last week after The Daily Beast reported that Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, "is said by well-connected Democrats to be considering the idea of running for president if Hillary Clinton opts out of the 2016 race."

Emanuel, the story said, "has had discussions both over the phone and face to face in the past month with Democratic Party donors and fundraisers about a possible White House run, according to sources."

Lynn Sweet 5 takeaways on a Rahm presidential bid is HERE.

WASHINGTON--Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday urged Republicans to "step up" to help avoid the looming March 1 sequester--automatic budget cuts unless Congress acts--and suggested to his former GOP colleagues they see the movie "Lincoln"--up for a best picture Academy Award on Sunday--to learn how to "get things done."

LaHood, at the Friday White House briefing said, "I think Republicans need to step up here. I served for 14 years. During those 14 years, I was a -- 12 of those years, I was in the majority party. Speaker Gingrich was the speaker. He worked with then-President Bill Clinton. We balanced the budget five of those 14 years. That's -- it meant that there was compromise. This requires compromise. This requires Republicans stepping forward with some ideas about how to keep essential services of government running at the level that people have been accustomed to. This is not rocket science. This is people coming together the way that other Congresses have done to solve big -- to big -- solve big issues.

"I suggest that my former colleagues on the Republican side go see the movie "Lincoln" because in the movie "Lincoln," it shows how hard it was back then to get things done. But what Lincoln did is he gathered people around him the way that I believe President Obama is doing, by calling Republicans, talking to them, trying to work with them. And when that happens, big things get solved. The "fiscal cliff" got solved because people started talking to one another. So this can happen again."

WASHINGTON--The White House is sounding the alarm on the impact of the looming March 1 sequester deadline, with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warning Friday that if Congress does not act to head off automatic federal spending cuts, flights to Chicago, New York and San Francisco could face big delays.

LaHood, at the Friday White House briefing said,"Here is what these automatic cuts are going to mean for the traveling public. Obviously, as always, safety is our top priority, and we will never allow the amount of air travel we can handle safely to take off and land -- which means travelers should expect delays. Flights to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco and others could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours because we have fewer controllers on staff. Delays in these major airports will ripple across the country. Cuts to budgets mean preventative maintenance and quick repair of runway equipment might not be possible, which could lead to more delays.

"And once airlines see the potential impact of these furloughs, we expect that they will change their schedules and cancel flights," he said.

"So we are beginning today discussions with our unions to likely close more than a hundred air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year. And we're talking about places like Boca Raton, Florida; Joplin, Missouri; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and San Marcos, Texas.

"The list of the towers -- the list of potential towers that are to be closed or elimination of midnight shifts is posted on our website as I'm speaking now, so you can see the entire list there. We're also beginning discussions with unions to eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country. These closures will impact services for commercial, general aviation and military aircraft. This will delay travelers and delay the critical goods and services that communities across the country need. These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences that will cost jobs and hurt our economy.

"The president has put forward a solution to avoid these cuts. And as a former member of Congress of 14 years, I urge my former colleagues to address this issue when they get back next Monday and to work on a long-term balanced solution to our deficit challenges."

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama's political army--his new nonprofit, Organizing for Action, spawned from his campaign--launched its first push on Friday, to bolster Obama's proposals for universal background checks for all gun purchasers.

The revamped OFA, with an office in Washington and soon to have one in Chicago, is targeting 80 congressional districts with a variety of free and paid on-line social media, grassroots and traditional political activities such as petitions and candle light vigils.

Of note: The OFA, on its inaugural thrust, is being very careful, asking supporters to organize on the least controversial proposal in the Obama package of items to curb gun violence.

WASHINGTON--Democratic House hopeful Debbie Halvorson has been the target of a $2 million campaign against her bankrolled by the anti-gun SuperPac controlled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and on Friday, the Washington Post Fact Checker columnist concluded the TV ads "cut very close to the line" by suggesting "guilt by association" with the NRA.

From Glenn Kessler: "These ads cut very close to the line. The description of the NRA positions are correct, but the photograph of Halvorson suggests guilt by association -- even though she has since distanced herself from the NRA and taken a more nuanced approach toward potential gun restrictions in her current race.
Moreover, the ad conjures up the image of criminals entering the state with hidden guns, even though the bill she co-sponsored has never become law and its possible impact on Illinois residents is unclear."

My take: The Tuesday Democratic primary for the Illinois House seat vacated by the disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) finds Halvorson, a former House member, former State Rep. Robin Kelly and Ald. Anthony Beale the front-runners in a hard-hitting contest where Bloomberg has emerged as a major factor, bankrolling ads and direct mail hits to take down Halvorson and bolster Kelly.

The winner Tuesday faces nominal GOP opposition in the March 19 general election and will land in Washington at a time when Congress will likely be considering measures to curb gun violence. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) is planning to roll out legislation mid-March.

So let's deal with what Congress will likely be voting on soon--and see where Halvorson, Beale and Kelly stand on the main four measures headed towards a roll call: I asked the three campaigns about their positions on the four main proposals; below, the answers.

1. A bill by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to cut down on gun trafficking. HALVORSON, BEALE, KELLY SUPPORT

2. A proposal for universal background checks for all firearm sales. HALVORSON, BEALE, KELLY SUPPORT

3. A proposal to limit the size of clips on ammunition magazines. President Barack Obama put the number at 10 bullets. HALVORSON, BEALE, KELLY SUPPORT.

Halvorson advisor George Bogdanich told me "she believes that there should be a limit on ammunition magazines, but hasn't yet decided on the number."

4. A proposal to reinstate and strengthen a ban on assault weapons. BEALE, KELLY SUPPORT. HALVORSON OPPOSES.

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama is on a publicity swing to mark the third anniversary of her "Let's Move" healthy eating and exercise project, in New York on Friday to guest on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon"--actress Scarlett Johansson will also appear-- and to tape interviews with ABC's Robin Roberts and the Dr. Oz Show.

Mrs. Obama hits Chicago on Thursday as part of her "Let's Move" publicity blitz.

The ABC segment will air on Good Morning America--Roberts is the co-host-- on Tuesday.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joins Mrs. Obama to tape the Dr. Oz episode to "talk about how physical activity affects both children's health and academic achievement. This episode will air on Thursday, the day Mrs. Obama and Secretary Duncan will make a major announcement about bringing physical activity back to schools," the White House said.

Mrs. Obama has a comfort level with Fallon and Roberts, having given them interviews in the past.

THE OBAMA/FALLON FILE: In February of 2012--to mark the "Let's Move" second anniversary, Mrs. Obama played tug of war with NBC's Fallon, with the rope pull in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House videotaped on Jan. 25, 2012.

Last April, President Barack Obama slow jammed the news--about student loan rates--with Fallon, taping the show at the University of North Carolina to send a message to a young audience to push Congress to prevent loan rates to rise.

WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Thursday said his son, disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is going through "a sad chapter, but not his last chapter" and that he "missed" detecting his bipolar depression symptoms.

Rev. Jackson, in the MSNBC interview, made his first comments since his son -- who could face up to five years in prison -- and his son's wife, Sandi, a former alderman, pleaded guilty Wednesday in a federal court to elaborate schemes to convert $750,000 of campaign contributions to personal use.

Asked what future awaits his son, Rev. Jackson said, "He is 47 years old. He is a writer, he is a thinker, he is a speaker, he is a strategist, and so his will for public service continues. He is down, but he will get back up again, and he will get back lots of family love."

Until Wednesday, Jackson Jr. had not made a public appearance since June 10 when he vanished, later turning up at the Mayo Clinic for treatment of a bipolar disorder.

As for spotting any mood swings in his son, Rev. Jackson said, "we just totally, we missed that. He kept serving his constitutiency well in the Congress and he kept relating to his family very well ... very late did we detect that something had gone awry, at which time we really took him to the doctor and the doctor recommended he go to the hospital."

What happened on June 10

On Sunday evening, June 10, syndicated radio talk show host Bill Press was in the George Washington University Hospital emergency room here for a hernia eruption.

As he was leaving around 8:30 p.m. he ran into Jackson Jr. walking into the ER with his brother, Yusef, who owns a Chicago beer distribution company.

"I know him; I was a little surprised to see him," Press told me on Thursday. Press asked him, "What are you doing here?"

Press recalled Jackson Jr. introduced him to his brother and replied, "I'm feeling a little under the weather.' Press said Jackson Jr. looked a "little haggard" at the time.

Press said his final words to Jackson Jr. were a request to be on his radio show to talk about his proposal to raise the minimum wage. Jackson Jr. said, "I'd like to do that."

Said Press, "He certainly did not look like someone who would be spending the next couple of months in therapy and rehab."

FEC demands Jackson report

Jackson pleaded guilty to "willfully and knowingly" directing his campaign treasurers to file reports he knew to be false with the Federal Election Commission. His plundered war chest had $105,703.12 cash-on-hand as of Nov. 26.

Now, another wrinkle: Jackson's congressional committee never filed a required 2012 year-end report due last month and on Friday, the FEC demanded to know where it was.

In a Feb. 15 form letter to Vickie Pasley, the current Jackson campaign treasurer, the FEC said "it is important that you file this report immediately." Pasley did not return a call asking for comment.

Not clear what happens next. Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center told me. "It is a fairly unique fact scenario."

WASHINGTON--The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on Thursday in an MSNBC interview said his son, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. who is facing prison time, is going through "a sad chapter, but not his last chapter."

Asked what future awaits his son, Jackson said, "I do not know whether politics or not. I know it is a sad chapter, but not his last chapter. He is 47 years old. He is a writer, he is a thinker, he is a speaker, he is a strategist and so his will for public service continues. He is down, but he will get back up again, and he will get back lots of family love.

"He is down, but he will get back up again, and he will get back lots of family love," Jackson said.

Jackson Jr. faces a sentence of up to five years after pleading guilty on Wednesday in federal court to a variety of schemes to convert campaign funds--and other money--to personal use. His wife Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, plead guilty to a charge of filing a false federal tax return. She will be sentenced on July 1; Jackson has a June 28 sentencing date. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins told both former political office holders that with their guilty plea, they forfeit the right to public office.

WASHINGTON -- For seven years, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, the former alderman, financed their personal spending sprees with campaign cash. And on Wednesday, as they pleaded guilty to their crimes, I watched, thinking what could have been.

Instead of political careers in Congress and City Hall, the only unit of government they will be involved with for some time will be the federal judiciary and punishment systems.

The son of the famed civil rights leader -- who fought alongside his father, a two-time presidential candidate, for voting rights -- faces prison time. Sandi and Jesse Jackson now are felons, with their right to vote or hold office again forfeited, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins told each of them in their separate hearings.

I've covered Jackson Jr. since his first earnest day in Congress and his father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, for decades.

I sat across the aisle from Rev. Jackson in court where he watched the proceedings, masking the pain I'm told he is feeling with a stoic face, fiddling at times, taking out a piece of paper and pen and writing something down. Usually garrulous on almost any topic, Rev. Jackson muzzled himself on Wednesday. He just said nothing.

I have no sympathy for the elaborate schemes the Jacksons' concocted to siphon political donations for themselves between 2005 and 2012. They apparently were not scared enough by the Rod Blagojevich corruption charges to shut down their scam even after the now imprisoned governor was arrested in December 2009 -- with Jackson drawn into that separate federal investigation.

Jackson's plea hearing was his first public appearance since he disappeared in June, surfacing at the Mayo Clinic for treatment of a bipolar depression disorder. I'm told he had a haircut Tuesday in anticipation of his court date.

On his left wrist he wore a big, beaded bracelet with what looked like leather ties. On his right wrist he wore multiple stands of bracelets, sometimes hidden by his blue sleeve.

He looked weepy most of the time, turning from the well of the court to shoot glances at his family and wife Sandi, who did not break down until she admitted to her guilt in front of Wilkins.

Sandi and Jesse Jackson had lots of relatives in court to give them support -- with their two young kids not present to see their parents confess to a federal judge, the world, their constitutients and their families that they were crooks.

Jackson looked contrite and remorseful. Right before his hearing started, he reached over from the defense table to the prosecution side to shake hands with the FBI agent who handled his case, Tim Thibault.

I often say I cover Chicago pols from announcement to indictment, and people incorrectly think I am making a joke. Two more went down Wednesday.

I was in the hallway when a teary-eyed Jackson walked outside the courtroom. He spotted me, came over and grabbed my hand and held it. Said Jackson, "Tell everybody back home, I'm sorry I let them down, OK?"

portrait_flotus_feb21.jpgWASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama returns to Chicago next week--Feb. 28--as part of a national swing she is taking to mark the third anniversary of her signature "Let's Move" project. Details below.

From the White House: First Lady Michelle Obama will return to her hometown of Chicago to make a major announcement to bring physical activity back to schools. The First Lady will be joined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, NIKE, Inc. President & CEO Mark Parker, Dominique Dawes, Gabby Douglas, Allyson Felix, Bob Harper, Bo Jackson, Colin Kaepernick, Sarah Reinertsen, Paul Rodriguez, Serena Williams, a surprise musical guest and thousands of Chicago area teachers and students at the event hosted by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Studies show that kids need at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day to stay healthy, but they're spending an average of 7 or more hours a day in front of a screen, and only 1 in 3 kids is active daily. In addition to the health benefits of an active lifestyle, research indicates that regular physical activity can improve test scores, classroom behavior and attendance. Yet, only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools and 2% of high schools currently offer daily P.E. and only 9 states require recess in elementary schools. Kids spend about half their time in schools, and the First Lady will call on leaders to work together to support schools' efforts to ensure that all kids get the physical activity they need to stay healthy and succeed in school.

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. pled guilty Wednesday to federal charges of using his campaign fund for personal use; wife Sandi, a former Chicago alderman, enters her guilty plea at 1:15 p.m. Chicago time. For the Sun-Times story, click HERE.

TWEET: From David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, now director at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics: "In IL-2, wonder if Debbie Halvorson would be crying foul if Toi Hutchinson had gotten out and backed HER? Very doubtful!"

White House storylines for Fed. 20, 2013: immigration, sequester and foreign affairs

SEQUESTER STORYLINE: President Barack Obama will be interviewed by eight local TV anchors, invited to the White House to talk to him about the looming March 1 deadline for a series of automatic spending cuts--referred to as the "sequester." The White House invited the anchors from selected TV markets in order to pressure GOP members of Congress.

IMMIGRATION STORYLINE: In order to put a cork in the bottle of complaints from Republicans that Obama was not talking to the four Senate Republicans who are part of the "Gang of 8" drafting bi-partisan immigration legislation--and to dilute a report the White House drafted its own bill--Obama picked up the phone Tuesday afternoon and called "Gang of 8" GOP members Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio,

The White House revealed there have been five meetings at staff levels with all the for deadline pressure yet from Obama on hatching a bill as long as there is progress.

WASHINGTON--Vice President Joe Biden's weapon of choice for personal protection: a shotgun, he said yesterday during a forum on gun violence hosted by Facebook and Parents Magazine. "Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun," he said.

Biden also smacked down a questioner who said drug bans did not work, so why would a gun ban "be different," noting no one in the Obama team is suggesting a gun ban--and what's the alternative " we just legalize all drugs? .....That would go real well in Parents magazine."

Biden used a pragmatic approach in arguing for a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the number of bullets in magazine clips, aiming at those who say they need the firepower for self-defense: "You don't need an AR-15"--a semi-automatic rifle-- if there is a problem at home because "it's harder to aim, it's harder to use," he said.

Biden owns two shotguns at home--referring to his Delaware residence--and in taking a question during the forum said "if you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun, have the shells -- a 12-gauge shotgun -- and I promise you -- as I told my wife -- we live in an area that's wooded and somewhat secluded.

"I said, Jill, if there's ever a problem, just walk out on the balcony here, walk out, put that double-barrel shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house. I promise you: Whoever's coming in is not going to -- you don't need an AR-15. It's harder to aim, it's harder to use, and in fact, you don't need 30 rounds to protect yourself. Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun."

The Obama administration is not proposing any overall gun ban. Biden had a strong answer when he was asked "if the ban on drugs did not work with taking them off streets, how do you think a ban on guns is going to be different?"

"There is no ban on guns. No one's banning the gun. No one's taking my shotguns. I have two shotguns at home. They're in a -- in a cabinet. They're locked. There is a ammunition there as well. No one is going to come and take my gun," Biden said.

"No one's going to take anyone's gun. We're talking about a background check.

"And the analogy to -- if there was a ban on drugs, how could there be a ban on -- you know, how would any regulation of the type of weapon available out there, why would that make sense? Are you suggesting we have no -- we just legalize all drugs? Is that what you're suggesting? That would go real well in Parents magazine. Let's talk about everybody being able to -- no matter what your age, go out and be able to purchase cocaine. What do you think about that idea? Look, these comparisons are not appropriate, quite frankly.

"But secondly, the idea on -- you should have no law unless the law you have prevents all violations of that law, that is not the way society works. That is not the way we -- the moral disapprobation of society has an impact on behavior in societies. And the moral disapprobation of the idea that you can leave a loaded gun around your house, there shouldn't be gun safety practiced by families that own weapons, et cetera, is a very important element in seeing to there's greater gun safety and security for our children."

WASHINGTON--Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, will appear in federal court here on Wednesday in two separate hearings before the same judge. This will be the first public appearence of Jackson since last June. The Sun-Times story on the plea agreement the couple is expected to enter is HERE.

WASHINGTON--General John Allen decided to retire--yanking his name from consideration as the new NATO commander--after meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday citing "health issues within his family."

Allen, who had been the top commander for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, drops out after Pentagon probers cleared him last month of accusations of misconduct stemming from e-mails to and from a Florida socialite Jill Kelly. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Allen's wife is very ill.

Allen was collateral damage in the scandal that forced then CIA Director David Petraeus to quit; Kelly got the investigation going when she complained about threatening e-mails from Paula Broadwell, who had been having an affair with Petraeus. It turned out that Kelly and Allen also exchanged hundreds of e-mails, which froze the Allen nomination until the Pentagon probe was complete.

Still, it made going forward with his nomination more difficult.

Obama said in a statement, " Today, I met with General John Allen and accepted his request to retire from the military so that he can address health issues within his family. I told General Allen that he has my deep, personal appreciation for his extraordinary service over the last 19 months in Afghanistan, as well as his decades of service in the United States Marine Corps. General Allen presided over the significant growth in the size and capability of Afghan National Security Forces, the further degradation of al Qaeda and their extremist allies, and the ongoing transition to Afghan security responsibility across the country.

"He worked tirelessly to strengthen our coalition through his leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and to improve our relations with the Afghan government. Above all, he cares deeply for the men and women in uniform who serve our nation - as well as their families - and I am grateful for the sacrifices made by his family in supporting him during his service. John Allen is one of America's finest military leaders, a true patriot, and a man I have come to respect greatly. I wish him and his family the very best as they begin this new chapter, and we will carry forward the extraordinary work that General Allen led in Afghanistan."


WASHINGTON--White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday the shooting death of 18-year-old Janay McFarlane--whose sister attended President Barack Obama's speech in Chicago on Friday--where he talked about curbing gun deaths--was a reminder why Congress needs "to do everything we can to reduce gun violence."

I asked Carney at the briefing if the White House had reached out to the McFarlane family in the wake of the horrific shooting--especially since her sister was at at the Obama speech at the Hyde Park Academy on Friday--hours before her sister was gunned down.

"I don't have any communications to report to you, Lynn," Carney said. "This is another example, a tragic example, of a young life being taken away by the scourge of gun violence in this country, and is a reminder of why we need to act together here in Washington to do everything we can to reduce gun violence, to do it in a way that, as the president has insisted, respects our Second Amendment rights, but to take necessary action to reduce this scourge, because it is taking too many young lives in America."

The Sun-Times is reporting that charges against two men accused of killing McFarlane in the Lake County suburb of North Chicago could come Tuesday.

The McFarlane murder came in the wake of the Jan. 29 death of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old shot to death in a park about a mile from the Obama family home in Kenwood. That murder became very personal for Obama and First Lady Michelle: Mrs. Obama attended her funeral in Chicago; her parents, Cleopatra and Nate were at the State of the Union speech in Washington last week and in the audience at Hyde Park Academy speech.

WASHINGTON--Jay Leno targeted disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) in his Tonight Show monologue on Monday night. Jackson was charged with siponing campaign funds for personal use including purchasing:

*a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents.
* $9,600 for furniture.
* $43,000 for a men's men's Rolex watch.
*$5,50 for fur capes and parkas .
*Thousands for memorabilia from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix.

LENO ON JACKSON: "Among the items he bought were Bruce Lee memorabilia, a black and red cashmere cape, and a Michael Jackson hat. Well, at least he didn't waste the money on something stupid."

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama's White House has two developing storylines on Tuesday: the impact of the sequester--the automatic spending cuts poised to start hitting a week from Friday if Congress does not act--and press corps concerns about access to the president.

THE BUDGET CUT STORYLINE: Obama at 10:45 a.m. ET will be flanked by police and fire personnel as he delivers comments urging Congress to avert the looming congressional-made budget crisis.

From the White House: "The President will deliver remarks to urge action to avoid the automatic budget cuts scheduled to hit next Friday if Congress fails to find a path forward on balanced deficit reduction. He will be joined at the White House by emergency responders - the kinds of working Americans whose jobs are on the line if Congressional Republicans fail to compromise on a balanced solution. If these cuts go into effect, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost and middle class families all across the nation will feel the devastating impact; FEMA would need to eliminate funding for State and local grants that support firefighter positions and State and local emergency management personnel, hampering our ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.

"With less than two weeks before these cuts hit, the President will challenge Republicans to make a very simple choice: do they protect investments in education, health care and national defense or do they continue to prioritize and protect tax loopholes that benefit the very few at the expense of middle and working class Americans?"

I expect this to be a topic at the 11:30 a.m. briefing at the White House in the wake of a lack of access to Obama during his Presidents Day weekend in Palm Beach which including golfing with Tiger Woods.

The concern escalated to the point where White House Correspondents Association's president Ed Henry issued a statement on Sunday: "Speaking on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association, I can say a broad cross section of our members from print, radio, online and TV have today expressed extreme frustration to me about having absolutely no access to the President of the United States this entire weekend. There is a very simple but important principle we will continue to fight for today and in the days ahead: transparency."

The White House released its own statement, from Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest:

"The press access granted by the White House today is entirely consistent with the press access offered for previous presidential golf outings. It's also consistent with the press access promised to the White House Press Corps prior to arrival in Florida on Friday evening."



At his event today (with real people!), the president will no doubt suggest Republicans are unwilling to close any special interest loopholes in the tax code. That's nonsense. Ridiculous, even. We have long made clear that reforming the tax code to eliminate carveouts, credits, and deductions is a top priority for House Republicans (look at our budgets). In fact, the House Ways and Means Committee plans to move forward this year with plan to rewrite and simplify the tax code.

Where we and the president differ is what to do with the additional revenue from closing loopholes. Creating jobs remains our top priority in the House. We believe the revenue generated from eliminating these carveouts should be used to lower rates across the board(and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee agrees). We view tax reform as an opportunity to make America more competitive and encourage private sector job creation. The president sees tax reform as an opportunity to raise revenue to fund more government. We're happy to have a debate about whether tax reform should be focused on creating jobs or growing government, but any statement by the White House that we're unwilling to close loopholes is patently false. The president just got $600 billion in revenue from the fiscal cliff deal. The American people understand the revenue debate is now closed.

If you'd like a quote on this point, please feel free to use: "Americans know that if they give President Obama more tax revenue, he isn't going to use it to reduce the deficit; he's going to spend it." - me

Finally, we agree the sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit. Our question is, given that the president just got his higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires, what spending is he willing to cut to replace it?


WASHINGTON--When Newt Gingrich was running for president during the contentious GOP primary, Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, wondered if he could stand the scrutiny. Said Axelrod about Gingrich at a December, 2011 press briefing, "just remember the higher a monkey climbs on a pole, the more you can see his butt," citing the "homespun wisdom" of Ald. Dick Mell (33rd). All that's in the past. Fast forward to Tuesday night: Gingrich sits for an interview with Axelrod at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics.

The "Conversation with Newt Gingrich" starts at 6 p.m. CT at Mandel Hall,1131 East 57th St., with the event billed as a "a wide-ranging conversation about his career, his views and the future of politics today." Axelrod is the IOP founder and director.

To register for a ticket to hear the former Speaker of the House:

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama says her new bangs are the result of a mid-life crisis during an interview with cookbook author/talk show host Rachael Ray on a segment to run Wednesday. Mrs. Obama said she didn't have a lot of other options to express herself--she can't go out and buy a sports car.

Mrs. Obama turned 49 on Jan. 17.

Ray is a safe interview for Mrs. Obama; she's been a booster of her signature project, healthy eating, appearing with her on Jan. 25, 2012 for the announcement Mrs. Obama made about new school lunch standards in Alexandria, Va.

Video by Mayors Against Illegal guns featuring the mother of slain Hadiya Pendleton, Cleopatra. The 15-year-old was gunned down on Jan. 29 in a park about a mile from President Barack Obama's Kenwood family home--and days after she was in Washington for his inauguration. Mrs. Pendleton is urging Congress to pass universal background checks for gun buyers.

A Sun-Times production by photographer Jessica A. Koscielniak and videographer Jon Sall.

WASHINGTON--State Sen. Toi Hutchinson pulled out of the Democratic primary to replace disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. on Sunday, throwing her endorsement to chief rival former State Rep. Robin Kelly days before the election, with that move consolidating African-American and progressive political support for Kelly.

"I am ending my campaign for Congress today and throwing my support behind Robin Kelly. I urge those who have been supporting me to now work hard for Robin over the next 9 days," Hutchinson said in a statement released Sunday morning.

Hutchinson's decision comes after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had emerged as the major player in the Illinois Democratic Second Congressional District primary spending--$1.4 million as of Friday--by his anti-gun Independence PAC USA. The PAC started to take aim at Hutchinson on Friday in a massive TV buy.

The primary had split usual progressive allies, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle backing Hutchinson and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Rep. Danny Davis and Rep. Bobby Rush supporting Kelly.

To underscore the new unity, Hutchinson, Kelly, Preckwinkle and Schakowsky all were part of the Sunday statement.

The new alliance is aimed to defeat former Rep. Debbi Halvorson in a contest where racial politics--Halvorson is the only white --and gun politics--Halvorson ran for re-election in 2010 with the support of the National Rifle Association--are in play. The Second Congressional District is heavily African-American.

The unity is crucial because the Democratic primary field is crowded and the winner on the Feb. 26 balloting will need only a plurality--not a majority--of the votes. Halvorson, Kelly and Hutchinson have been the front-runners with Ald. Anthony Beale a longer shot.

While there are likely portions of the sprawling district--with voters in Cook, Will and Kankakee Counties--who may be sympathetic to gun rights issues--they are likely to be Republicans--who would have to be persuaded to pull a Democratic primary ballot on Tuesday.

The Bloomberg PAC has been pounding at Halvorson for weeks, coming out for Kelly--and against Hutchinson in that Friday TV spot. PAC spokesman Stefan Friedman told me Saturday the PAC was poised to spend at least $2 million in the contest.

Preckwinkle endorsed Hutchinson in January, snubbing Kelly--who she hired to be her chief administrative officer.

Kelly, in her statement said, while "Hutchinson and I haven't agreed on everything, we have a strong mutual respect, share a passion for public service and dedication to the people in Chicago and the Southland. I'm pleased to have her on our team. Likewise, I am excited that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has joined our campaign. She has been a strong voice in the fight against gun violence in the county. In Congress, I will work with Senator Hutchinson, President Preckwinkle and other leaders throughout our district to get guns off our streets and bring jobs to our neighborhoods."

"This election is too important for our party to remain divided," Schakowsky said.

Kelly will discuss the state of the race at a press conference at 2:30 p.m. CT at her Richton Park campaign office, 3707 Sauk Trail.

Below, statements from Senator Toi Hutchinson, Robin Kelly, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.

Senator Toi Hutchinson: "I am ending my campaign for Congress today and throwing my support behind Robin Kelly. I urge those who have been supporting me to now work hard for Robin over the next 9 days. I have said from day one that this campaign is not about me or any one person; it's about moving America forward and standing with President Obama to create new jobs and safer communities. Robin is a friend, and has captured momentum in pulling our community together. I am simply unwilling to risk playing a role going forward that could result in dividing our community at time when we need unity more than ever. In the wake of horrendous gun related crimes all across our country, I agree with Robin that we need to stand together to fight gun violence, but Debbie Halvorson been wrong headed in her refusal to moderate her views on banning dangerous assault weapons. President Obama needs a strong voice and a partner in Congress to win these important fights and I do not believe Debbie Halvorson would be that voice or partner."

Robin Kelly: Today is a good day for the Second Congressional District. While Senator Hutchinson and I haven't agreed on everything, we have a strong mutual respect, share a passion for public service and dedication to the people in Chicago and the Southland. I'm pleased to have her on our team. Likewise, I am excited that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has joined our campaign. She has been a strong voice in the fight against gun violence in the county. In Congress, I will work with Senator Hutchinson, President Preckwinkle and other leaders throughout our district to get guns off our streets and bring jobs to our neighborhoods."

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle: "Robin Kelly and Toi Hutchinson are both very strong, independent woman and public servants. I consider them both friends of mine. During Debbie Halvorson's one term in Congress, she opposed President Obama on dozens of issues including critical Wall St. reform and extending benefits for the long term unemployed. She has also vowed to fight his common sense plans for stronger gun laws. I'm proud of Toi for agreeing to put voters before her own ambitions. She is young and has a bright future ahead of her. I did not want to see her campaign close with negative attacks at a time when Robin Kelly is surging with momentum to capture the Democratic nomination for Congress. Robin is a strong leader and will thrive in Congress. I wish her all the luck in the world and I know we will work closely together on issues of mutual importance to our Southland constituents."

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky: "This election is too important for our party to remain divided. I'm thrilled that Senator Hutchinson has joined me today in supporting Robin Kelly's campaign for Congress. Senator Hutchinson is a strong leader with a bright future. I applaud her for doing what is best for the Democratic Party today and joining the Kelly campaign so Robin can go to Washington to work with me and President Obama for common sense gun safety laws."

WASHINGTON--State Sen. Toi Hutchinson will drop out of the Democratic primary to replace the scandalized Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and throw her support Sunday to former State Rep. Robin Kelly, I have confirmed.

Hutchinson's decision comes after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has emerged as the major player in the Illinois Democratic Second Congressional District primary with massive spending by his anti-gun PAC to bolster Kelly.

Bloomberg's Independence PAC USA so far has poured $1.4 million in the primary, started a massive TV buy for Kelly on Friday and was prepared, PAC spokesman Stefan Friedman told me Saturday, to surpass $2 million in spending.

Sources told me Saturday night Hutchinson, a state senator, will back Kelly, a former state representative. Kelly and Hutchinson shared a similar geographical and racial base of support--both African American females--and would have made it easier for their chief rival, former Rep. Debbi Halvorson -a white female--to win in what was shaping up as a three-way showdown.

Though the Democratic primary field is crowded, with a little more than a week left to the Feb. 26 primary, there are only four viable candidates, with Halvorson, Kelly and Hutchinson the top three contenders and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) a much longer shot.

Bloomberg's PAC jumped in the primary last month, focusing spending at first against former Halvorson, who had National Rifle Association backing when she ran and lost a re-election bid in 2010 to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.)
On Friday, the PAC took sides, releasing an ad running on Chicago cable and broadcast television endorsing Kelly and explicitly against Halvorson and Hutchinson, her two main rivals.

According to Federal Election Commission records filed on Saturday, the Bloomberg's PAC most recent media buy in the race was for $730,335.95.

The billionaire New York mayor -- a Republican turned independent -- launched the PAC last year to oppose local, state and federal candidates against gun control measures, marriage equality and education reform -- and support their rivals.

Kelly seized on the gun issue early on, making it the defining issue of her campaign.

"Kelly will join President Obama to take on the NRA for effective background checks and to ban deadly assault weapons," a narrator says in the PAC ad.

The spot started running on Chicago broadcast and cable outlets on the day Obama was in Chicago, speaking at Hyde Park Academy, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., about violence in the city and his proposals to curb gun crime.

Friday was also the day federal prosecutors charged Jackson with siphoning campaign contributions for his personal use, and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, with filing false federal income-tax returns. Sandi Jackson -- who managed her husband's campaign -- resigned her 7th Ward aldermanic seat as the probe was closing in on her a few weeks ago.

Besides bankrolling paid TV advertising, the Bloomberg PAC is also spending for direct mail and internet advertising.

Other PACs are also spending to oppose Halvorson or boost Kelly, including the Service Employees International Union, Progressive Kick and CREDO.

The outside PACS are putting more money into the contest than all the Democratic contenders combined.

With time running out to make a difference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel so far hasn't announced his support for any candidate. It appears that Emanuel -- who has been taking a national profile on gun measures -- is staying on the sidelines at home because an alderman is in the contest.

One reason Bloomberg is playing so heavily in the primary -- anchored on the South Side and in the south suburbs -- is that winning the primary in the heavily Democratic 2nd congressional district faces is tantamount to clinching the seat in the March 19 general election. A plurality is needed to win--not a majority.

Jackson easily won re-election last November even though he never campaigned.

"Voters in Illinois' Second District want to elect a consistent champion who will go to Washington to stand up to the NRA and help pass the president's gun package -- that person is Robin Kelly," Friedman said.

WASHINGTON--New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the major player in the Illinois Democratic primary to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.--facing federal corruption charges-- with his anti-gun PAC pumping in $1.4 million so far in the contest to insure the defeat of Debbi Halvorson--with spending likely to exceed $2 million.

Bloomberg's Independence PAC USA ramped up spending in the past week with more to come, spokesman Stefan Friedman told me Saturday.

The PAC jumped in the primary last month focusing spending at first against Halvorson, a former House member.

On Friday, the PAC took sides, releasing an ad running on Chicago cable and broadcast television on behalf of Robin Kelly and against Halvorson and Toi Hutchinson, the top three candidates in the contest.

"Kelly will join President Obama to take on the NRA for effective background checks and to ban deadly assault weapons," says the narrator of the ad, releasing the spot the day Obama was in Chicago talking about violence in the city and his proposals to curb gun violence.

As of Friday, according to Federal Election Commission records, the Bloomberg PAC spend $1,406,972.46 in the Illinois race--more than all the Democratics combined raised.

Early voting already started. The primary is Feb. 26 and the winner in the heavily Democratic second congressional district faces only nominal GOP opposition in the general election.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama returned home Friday and talked in a very personal way about the horrible violence in Chicago -- "the equivalent of a Newtown every four months -- but let's face it, he can't be the cop on the beat.

Figuring what to do in the short term about the soaring murder rate in the city is Mayor Rahm Emanuel's job.

Obama's speech at Hyde Park Academy was all about the big picture: root causes of crime, fatherhood and how investments to revitalize communities to create jobs with a living wage is as much an answer to curbing gun violence in U.S. cities as other measures Obama is prodding Congress to consider.

"There are entire neighborhoods where young people -- they don't see an example somebody succeeding," Obama said. "For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect. And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building," Obama said.

Obama's third and last stop of his post-State of the Union swing was intensely moving: Twice this week, at the school and during the Tuesday State of the Union address, Obama talked about Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old gunned down in a park near the Obama family home on Jan. 29, days after she was in Washington for his inauguration. A week ago, First Lady Michelle was at her funeral.

Obama often uses his biography in his speeches and Friday presented particularly obvious opportunities. Obama talked about his move to Chicago to become a community organizer on the Far South Side where he worked with local people to "help young people who felt like they had nowhere to turn."

Ironically, some decades later, Obama is still grappling with the same problem, now on a massive scale.

The Obama team has labeled portions of his second term economic and education agenda -- the programs to hoist the working poor into the middle class and give disadvantaged kids a running start -- "ladders of opportunity," with the first rung preschool classes for almost everyone.

Each program faces a hurdle in Congress, with Obama bracing for tough negotiations in the weeks ahead over looming spending and budget issues. On the gun front, there appears to be the most bipartisan support -- especially in the Senate -- for closing the background check loopholes, a rather logical extension of existing law.

But I want to get back to the local impact of Obama finally coming home to talk about crime in his adopted hometown. Obama did bring a gift from the Navy -- a multimillion-dollar grant for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education at the Adm. Hyman Rickover Naval Academy, 5900 N. Glenwood.

And for all the fire Emanuel is under for the murders in the city, Obama refused to criticize his former chief of staff in any way -- instead praising him for making priorities of preschool and high school STEM education.

FOOTNOTE: After spending about four hours in Chicago, Obama headed to southern Florida to relax and perhaps play some golf this Presidents Day weekend. Mrs. Obama and their daughters are off skiing this long weekend.

Sun-Times Video by Jon Sall

WASHINGTON--Before flying to Chicago today, President Barack Obama met with outgoing Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and will be awarding medals to outstanding U.S. citizens.

After the Napolitano event, according the to the pool report, "as the pool was ushered out, POTUS declined to answer questions about Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel and about the 2016 presidential prospects of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff."

That's a reference to a Daily Beast story about Emanuel and 2016 you can read HERE.

My column on Emanuel and the 2016 White House race is HERE.

WASHINGTON--The day before President Barack Obama visits Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's City Hall was scrambling to throw cold water on a report Emanuel talked to donors about a 2016 White House bid. While it is premature to actually be running, it is not premature to speculate on the 2016 presidential contest.

The Daily Beast reported Thursday afternoon that Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, "is said by well-connected Democrats to be considering the idea of running for president if Hillary Clinton opts out of the 2016 race."

Emanuel, the story said, "has had discussions both over the phone and face to face in the past month with Democratic Party donors and fundraisers about a possible White House run, according to sources."

Five takeaways:

1. Emanuel has always been looking ahead in his political career to seize an opportunity should it present itself.

He jumped in a House race for a North Side Chicago seat as soon as it was clear the spot would be open. Once in Congress, he positioned himself to be in line to be House Speaker. Obama derailed that when he tapped Emanuel for chief of staff. The next big opening was Chicago mayor, and Emanuel grabbed that.

Being a senator or governor could only diminish Emanuel because he would have to depend on cooperating partners in Congress or in the Illinois General Assembly. As mayor with a fairly compliant City Council, Emanuel is in a position to call most every shot when it comes to running the city. The only next step for him is president.

2. Denials at this stage are of limited value. See below for the denial the Emanuel team pushed after the Washington Post reported in 2010 that Emanuel --while chief of staff--was telling people he was interested in City Hall. Months later he was in the race.

3. Emanuel swims constantly in the major donor world. Big money donors like to be wooed by people they see as important. So it doesn't hurt Emanuel for him to be mentioned as a 2016 potential even if in public he shrugs it off.

4. Everything is contingent on Hillary Clinton. Emanuel would not be where he is today without Bill Clinton. He moved from Chicago to Little Rock, Ark. to be a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and landed in the White House after the win, setting the stage for him to in later years mass a personal fortune and launch a political career.

5. I will let Obama have the last word when it comes to denials. Shortly after being elected a senator from Illinois, the Sun-Times reported that Obama said he was not going to run for president.

And on January 22, 2006, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama has this exchange with the late Tim Russert:

Russert: "When we talked back in November of '04, after your election, I said, "There's been enormous speculation about your political future. Will you serve your full six-year term as a United States senator from Illinois?" Obama: "Absolutely."

Obama: "I will serve out my full six-year term. You know, Tim, if you get asked enough, sooner or later you get weary and you start looking for new ways of saying things, but my thinking has not changed."

Russert: "But, but--so you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?"

Obama: "I will not."

Now let's take a look at what I reported last night after the Daily Beast story was posted.

"He's not running for president," Emanuel spokesman Sarah Hamilton told me, the same denial that's been issued in the past when Emanuel presidential talk flares up.

Still, to recap: last May, Emanuel signed a note for Sun-Times City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman that said "I, Rahm Emanuel, will not run for another office -- EVER."

Emanuel close friend and top advisor David Axelrod--who is also Obama's top strategist told Spielman Thursday night, "I consider myself pretty close to him,and this would be news to me," said David Axelrod, Emanuel's former White House colleague and friend of 30 years. "Right now his concerns are pretty close to home."

Asked about the constant speculation that Emanuel has his eyes on a presidential run, Axelrod said "That's the kind of buzz that will always be around him."

Emanuel does almost all his fund-raising events in secret and conducted many of his solicitations for Obama's SuperPac last year over the phone. What is at issue here is what Emanuel may have been saying to the donor world--not whether he is "running."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has laughed off every question she's been asked about any 2016 ambitions and that hasn't done anything to douse speculation she may make another White House bid.

In other words, for mega political figures like Clinton and Emanuel--who have vast access to donor networks--one does not run at this stage. One must just exist.

And when it comes to the denial department, Emanuel has a track record that is spotty.

In early 2010, the Washington Post's Sally Quinn reported that "Emanuel is said to have told people that the chief-of-staff role is an 18-month job and that he is considering a run for mayor of Chicago."

Emanuel and his team at the time issued strong denials and did everything they could to shoot down Quinn's story.

Until he started running for mayor.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama hits Chicago on Friday afternoon to highlight the "ladders to opportunity" he talked about in his State of the Union address Tuesday: education and local development programs designed to vault more people into the middle class.

Obama is speaking at the Hyde Park Career Academy, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave, and is also going to address the gun violence that took the life of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton about a mile from his Kenwood home on Jan. 29 -- a murder he spotlighted in his Tuesday speech.

He is expected to be meeting privately with about two dozen youths who are part of the "Becoming A Man" program at the school. Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with the teens who were part of that program last week.

I'm told City Hall is anticipating Obama will highlight the success of five high schools in Chicago specializing in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics--known as STEM programs-- as well as throw a spotlight on early childhood programs Emanuel has championed. The schools are Michele Clark Academic Prep, Corliss, Chicago Vocational, Lake View and Sarah Goode STEM Academy.

The Chicago early childhood programs would be in the mix as national examples because Obama is calling for expansion of pre-school opportunities for every low-and-moderate income child in the nation, much more ambitious then the current Head Start programs serving only the very poor.

On leading more people to the middle class, Obama is proposing increasing of the federal minimum wage to $9-a-hour--up from $7.25--and a boost from the $8.25 rate imposed on Illinois employers.

The last time Obama was in Chicago was in November, to mark his re-election.

Below, from the White House, details from Obama's proposals to make sure "hard work" leads to a "decent living."


There's a basic bargain in America. It says that no matter who you are or where you're from, if you're willing to work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to find a good job, feel secure in your community, and support a family. President Obama has fought for the middle class, and has made historic investments in making sure that there are ladders of opportunity for those working hard to make it to the middle class.

The President's plan builds on the progress we've made over the last four years to expand opportunity for every American and every community willing to do the work to lift themselves up. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges we face. It will take a collaborative effort--between business and federal, state, and local officials; faith-based and non-profit organizations; kids and parents--to ensure that hard work leads to a decent living for every American. The President's plan:

· Rewards hard work by raising the minimum wage to $9.00: Right now, a full-time minimum wage worker makes $14,500 a year. That means too many Americans who are putting in an honest, hard day's work are living in poverty. That's unacceptable. The President's plan raises the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00, which would directly boost wages for 15 million workers and reduce poverty and inequality.

· Provides high-quality preschool for every child: Let's give every child the fair shot he or she deserves. For America to succeed in the 21st century, we must have the most dynamic, educated workforce in the world, and that education has to start early in life. But today, most four-year-olds aren't in a high-quality public preschool program. The President's plan partners with states to expand high-quality preschool to every child.

· Partners with communities to help them rebuild and put people back to work: A child's zip code should never determine her destiny; but today, the neighborhood she grows up in impacts her odds of graduating high school, her health outcomes, and her lifetime economic opportunities. This year, the Administration will begin to partner with 20 communities that were hardest-hit by the recession to help get them back on their feet. Working with local leaders, the President's plan targets resources at creating jobs, public safety, education, and housing.

· Creates pathways to jobs for all Americans: The President's plan offers incentives to companies that hire Americans who've got what it takes to fill a job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance anymore. His plan also supports summer and year-round jobs for low-income youth. This is in addition to his plan to equip Americans with the skills they need for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the 21st century.

· Expands early childhood opportunity for all Americans: In addition to providing access to high-quality preschool for every child, the President is proposing to make a significant investment in early learning opportunities for our youngest children--birth through age three--by expanding Early Head Start, child care, and other health and education programs.

· Strengthens families: The President is proposing to remove financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples; as well as continuing to support the critical role that fathers play in enhancing the intellectual, emotional, and financial well-being of their sons and daughters.

The President's Commitment to Ensuring Hard Work Leads to a Decent Living

· Rewarding hard work by raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour: The President believes that no one who works full time should have to raise their family in poverty. But right now, a full-time minimum wage worker makes $14,500 a year - which leaves too many families struggling to make ends meet, with a family of four supported by a minimum wage worker still living below the poverty line, even counting tax credits for working families. That's why the President is calling on Congress to raise the Federal minimum wage to $9.00 and index it to inflation thereafter. The President is also proposing to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which has not been increased for over twenty years. The erosion in the real value of the minimum wage has been a factor in increasing inequality in recent decades. The President's proposal would address this problem by raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation so that working families can keep up with rising costs.

o Raising the minimum wage mostly benefits adults, and especially working women: Around 60 percent of workers benefiting from a higher minimum wage are women, and few are teenagers - less than 20 percent.

o Raising the minimum wage helps parents: The average worker who would benefit from a rise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour brought home 46 percent of his or her household's total wage and salary income in 2011, according to the Current Population Survey.

o For a working family earning $20,000 - $30,000, the extra $3,500 per year from raising the minimum wage would cover:

§ The family's spending on groceries for a year; or

§ The family's spending on utilities for a year; or

§ The family's spending on gasoline and clothing for a year; or

§ Six months of housing.

· Providing high-quality preschool for every child: For America to succeed in the 21st century, we must have the most dynamic, educated workforce in the world, and that education has to start early in life. Every dollar invested in early learning and development programs saves about $7 down the road in higher earnings that yield more revenue, and lower government spending on social services and crime prevention. The President is presenting a plan to provide access to preschool for every child, while also incentivizing states to expand access to full-day kindergarten.

o The President's proposal will improve quality and expand access to preschool, through a partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty. The U.S. Department of Education will allocate funding to states based on their share of low- and moderate-income four-year olds, and distribute funds to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program. The proposal would include an incentive for states to broaden participation in their public preschool program for additional middle-class families.

o Funds will support states as they ensure that children are enrolled in high-quality programs. In order to access federal funding, states would be required to meet quality benchmarks that are linked to better outcomes for children, which include:

§ state-level standards for early learning;

§ qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms; and

§ a plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems.

o Preschool programs across the states would meet common and consistent standards for quality across all programs, including:

§ well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff;

§ small class sizes and low adult-to-child ratios;

§ comprehensive health and related services; and

§ effective evaluation and review of programs.

· Partnering with communities to help them rebuild and put people back to work: A child's zip code should never determine her destiny; but today, the neighborhood she grows up in impacts her odds of graduating high school, her health outcomes, and her lifetime economic opportunities. Working with local leadership, the President is proposing to align a number of his signature revitalization initiatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, and the Department for Agriculture to ensure that federal programs and resources are focused intensely on 20 communities hardest hit by the recession.

We've seen this approach work in places like San Antonio, TX where Mayor Julian Castro is revitalizing neighborhoods that have been distressed for decades, leveraging significant private investment to focus funding where the need is greatest and the evidence of impact is strongest. In San Antonio, the United Way is working alongside teachers and cops to improve young people's chances at graduating from high school.

The Administration will designate each of these areas as "Promise Zones" through a transparent, competitive process that can bring a number of programs to bear, including:

o Targeted investments can transform high-poverty communities into places of opportunity that can attract private investment, improve education, and create jobs. Such investments may include:

§ Targeting neighborhoods to reduce violent crime by providing Department of Justice funding for local law enforcement and community leaders;

§ Transforming high-poverty neighborhoods by leveraging Department of Housing and Urban Development grants to attract private investment to tear down distressed public housing and build new mixed income homes, while ensuring that low-income residents do not get displaced; and

§ Ensuring students in these communities graduate high school prepared to enter the workforce or are prepared for college by utilizing Department of Education funding to expand early education, after school and summer instructional time, as well as reduce dropout rates.

Promise Zone tax incentives to stimulate growth and investments in targeted communities. These incentives will includes tax credits for hiring workers and tax write-offs for capital investment within the Zone.

o Helping local leaders navigate federal programs, cut red tape, and use federal resources more effectively.

· Creating pathways to jobs: The President's plan helps low-income youth find summer and year-round jobs, teaches our kids the real world skills they need to find a job, and offers incentives to companies that hire the long-term unemployed. These steps are critical to ensuring that our economic recovery reaches all Americans. In his FY2013 budget, the President proposed a Pathways Back to Work Fund to help support job and work-based training opportunities for long term unemployed and low income adults, , and support summer and year-round jobs for low-in­come youth. The fund would build on the successful efforts of the Recovery Act's TANF-ECF program, which helped support job opportunities for 260,000 low-income individuals in 39 States and DC, and the Administration's Summer Jobs+ effort in 2012. The President has shown a commitment to continuing to provide support to unemployed Americans by proposing wide-ranging reforms to the unemployment insurance program, some of which were adopted in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act of 2012. Recognizing that the opportunity to acquire the skills to get and keep a good job starts early and through education, the President will also announce:

o Modernizing America's high schools for real-world learning: The President is announcing a new competition to kick-start a redesign of high schools to emphasize real-world learning. The President's plan will invest in redesigning high school to focus on providing challenging, relevant experiences, and reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and that create classes that focus on technology, science, engineering, and other skills today's employers are demanding to fill jobs open now and in the future. In addition, the President is proposing to strengthen and reform our federal investment in career and technical education to better align programs with the needs of employers and with the demands of higher education.

· Expanding early childhood opportunity for all Americans: Today, far too many kids are already behind academically and developmentally by the time they start school, and never truly catch up--compromising our ability to compete in a global economy and sidelining huge pools of untapped talent.

o Starting early childhood education from birth. In addition to providing high-quality preschool for every child, the President's proposal will grow the availability of high-quality early learning programs for young children to ensure that the expansion of preschool services for four-year-olds is part of a cohesive and well-aligned system of early learning for children from birth to age five. This investment will focus on our existing infrastructure of federally-funded programs such as Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Fund to expand services and boost their quality.

o Extending and expanding voluntary home visiting: For our youngest at-risk children and parents, the President will also propose a substantial investment to expand voluntary home visiting programs that provide nurses, social workers, and other professionals to connect families to assistance that will improve a child's health, development, and ability to learn. This will help ensure that our most vulnerable Americans are on track from birth, and that later educational investments rest upon a strong foundation.

· Strengthening families: The President will also continue his commitment to support healthy marriages for all families, including removing deterrents for low-income couples to get married and supporting the critical role that fathers play in enhancing the intellectual, emotional, and financial well-being of their sons and daughters. The Administration proposes to allow existing federal programs, like the child support program, to implement models that get more men working and engaging with their children. The Administration also proposes to allow States to test strategies to overcome financial deterrents to forming safe and stable two-parent households and marriage in federal programs.

Building on the Progress We've Made

In addition to the President's comprehensive reform agenda to increase access to high quality education for all Americans, the Administration will build on a strong foundation in these key areas that help create ladders of opportunity.

· Increased access to early childhood education: The Administration's significant investments in Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care funding have increased access to early education for hundreds of thousands of young children. We increased the number of children served in Head Start and Early Head Start by 61,000 and boosted child care funding, while implementing historic reforms to ensure that Head Start children are served only by the best programs. Under the President's leadership, enrollment in Early Head Start in particular has nearly doubled. The Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge has rewarded 14 states that have agreed to raise the bar on the quality of their public and private early childhood education programs, establishing higher standards across programs and providing critical links with health, nutrition, mental health, and family support for our neediest children.

· Supporting strong families and marriage: The Affordable Care Act invests more federal funds in voluntary home visiting services for low-income parents and newborns--providing hundreds of thousands of families with services on maternal and child health, parenting skills, nutrition, child abuse prevention, and parental education and employment. The President fought to extend an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that reduces "marriage penalties" in the tax code for working parents with children. Finally, the President has a long-standing and deeply personal commitment to encouraging both parents to be actively engaged in a child's life, with a particular emphasis on reaching fathers through partnerships and modernizing our federal programs.

· Revitalizing Neighborhoods: Since 2009, the President has invested more than $350 million in more than 100 of the nation's persistent pockets of poverty through two of his signature programs. Fashioned after the Harlem Children's Zone, the Administration has invested in Promise Neighborhoods to support high-poverty communities in building a 'cradle through college' pipeline of educational supports to help young people graduate high school and pursue higher education. Choice Neighborhoods helps transform neighborhoods with distressed public housing and concentrated poverty into opportunity-rich, mixed-income neighborhoods, by aligning investments in improved housing with expansion of high-quality educational opportunities.

· Partnering with local leaders to support distressed cities: In 2011, the White House launched Strong Cities, Strong Communities, a unique partnership between Mayors and the federal government to drive economic growth in chronically distressed cities. Through federal teams on the ground and specialized technical assistance, the pilot is helping seven Mayors implement their economic visions to promote strategic partnerships between government and businesses that create jobs, implement strategic city planning, and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

· Providing jobs and skills training for low-income youth and adults: The President's Pathways Back to Work Fund would build upon success in the Recovery Act, which helped place 372,000 low-income youth into summer and year-round employment and supported job opportunities for about 260,000 low-income individuals in 2009 and 2010. The President's Summer Jobs+ Initiative in 2012 also secured commitments from the private sector, non-profits and government at all levels to provide opportunities for low-income and disconnected youth. In total, more than 150 Summer Jobs+ partners committed over 300,000 training and mentorship opportunities, including over 100,000 paid jobs.

o Reforming our Unemployment Insurance System to Help Put People Back to Work: The President has already shown a commitment to continuing to provide support to unemployed Americans and to make our unemployment system more of a back-to-work system. The President proposed, and Congress adopted in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act of 2012, wide-ranging reform to the unemployment insurance program that encourage states to adopt work-sharing programs to prevent layoffs, help the unemployed start new businesses, and give states authority to run pilots helping workers on unemployment insurance get on-the-job experience designed to lead to employment.

§ Strengthening economic security for all working Americans through tax relief: As part of the end-of-year fiscal deal, the Obama Administration secured permanent middle-class tax relief, preventing a $2,200 income tax increase this year for the typical family of four. The President fought hard to include extensions of Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit improvements that provide critical assistance to 15 million low- and moderate-income working families with children.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama took First Lady Michelle to an exclusive restaurant here on Thursday night for a Valentine's Day dinner: minibar by José Andrés the name of the chef of downtown eaterie.


WASHINGTON--The confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be Defense Secretary stalled in the Senate on Thursday, falling short of the votes needed to prevent a filibuster.

The roll call was 58-40, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) voting to end a GOP filibuster threat and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) voting to let it continue.

The Senate Democrats are expected to try again to advance Hagel on Feb. 26. Hagel needs to find just one more vote to meet the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.) switched his vote to no in order to preserve his option of calling the measure again for reconsideration.

Right before the vote, Durbin made an impassioned plea on Thursday afternoon from the Senate floor to support President Barack Obama's nomination of Hagel. Kirk has come out strongly against Hagel.

The vote Thursday is to block a GOP filibuster attempt--and as I write this it is not clear whether or not there are 60 votes for Hagel needed to nullify the threat. Democrats sit in 55 of the 100 Senate seats. Hagel would have been confirmed on the strength of Democratic support if there was an up-or-down vote.

The White House said in a statement after the vote, "Today, Senate Republicans put political posturing ahead of our nation's security. For the first time in American history, Senate Republicans filibustered a nominee for Secretary of Defense - a member of their own party, a decorated combat veteran, and the right leader for our troops. A clear majority in the United States Senate supports Senator Hagel's confirmation, so today's action runs against both the majority will of the Senate and our nation's interest. This waste of time is not without consequence. We have 66,000 men and women deployed in Afghanistan, and we need our new Secretary of Defense to be a part of significant decisions about how we bring that war to a responsible end.

"Next week in Brussels, the United States will meet with our allies to talk about the transition in Afghanistan at the NATO Defense Ministerial, and our next Secretary of Defense should be there. With questions about the sequester looming over the Pentagon, our Secretary of Defense should be in place. For the sake of national security, it's time to stop playing politics with our Department of Defense, and to move beyond the distractions and delay. Allow this war hero an up or down vote, and let our troops have the Secretary of Defense they deserve."

After the vote, Reid said in a statement, ""In a time of war and threats to Americans at home and abroad, Senate Republicans are waging the first-ever filibuster of a Defense Secretary nominee. Despite unprecedented responsiveness and transparency from the White House, Republicans have constantly invented new pretexts for opposing Senator Hagel's nomination, and Republicans continued their embarrassing display of disregard for our national security by blocking Senator Hagel's nomination today.

"Watching Republicans with otherwise distinguished records on national security place their desire to please the Tea Party ahead of doing the right thing for our troops is one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my twenty-seven years in the Senate.

"Senator Hagel is a decorated war veteran, an expert on national security issues and the right man to lead the Pentagon in these troubling times. Democrats will continue to fight for Senator Hagel, and we will reconsider his nomination in the coming days. Some Republican senators have said that they will change their votes, and allow his nomination to proceed at some point in the future. I will take them at their word, and I will hold them to their pledge."

Before the vote on the filibuster Durbin said from the floor that Hagel opponents want to make a "political stand" in order to "stop Chuck Hagel today. ...This isn't fair," Durbin said. He said Hagel was a "good man who will do a good job."

Kirk's opposition is connected to Hagel's views on sanctions against Iran; Kirk has led a drive for tougher sanctions in order to avoid Iran gaining nuclear capability.

In a Thursday statement, Kirk repeated the Feb. 1 concerns that led him to announce his opposition to Hagel.

"During his confirmation hearing, Senator Hagel instinctively called the Iranian government both elected and legitimate. He initially offered strong support for containment of Iran, rather than President Obama's stated policy of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. He could not clearly explain his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran - opposition as recent as 2008. And at no time did he state his position on whether the European Union should formally designate Iran's terror proxy, Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization - a group responsible for the murders of some 280 American citizens, including eight from Illinois," Kirk said.

"I appreciate and respect Senator Hagel's record of service to our country, especially as a decorated combat veteran. However, based on Senator Hagel's testimony, on top of my existing concerns regarding his past statements and votes, I cannot support his nomination."

WASHINGTON--Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) made an impassioned plea on Thursday afternoon from the Senate floor to support President Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be Defense Secretary, with a vote that could cripple his confirmation scheduled soon. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has come out strongly against Hagel.

The vote Thursday is to block a GOP filibuster attempt--and as I write this it is not clear whether or not there are 60 votes for Hagel needed to nullify the threat. Democrats sit in 55 of the 100 Senate seats.

Durbin said from the floor that Hagel opponents want to make a "political stand" in order to "stop Chuck Hagel today. ...This isn't fair," Durbin said. He said Hagel was a "good man who will do a good job."

Kirk's opposition is connected to Hagel's views on sanctions against Iran; Kirk has led a drive for tougher sanctions in order to avoid Iran gaining nuclear capability.

WASHINGTON--Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in Washington today, though the trip is not on his public schedule. Emanuel will be meeting with all the members of the Illinois Congressional Delegation at a lunch where the discussion is supposed to center on Illinois and Chicago issues. Emanuel also has a series of other meetings planned, according to City Hall.

Updated: February 14, 2013 2:29AM

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's Chicago visit on Friday will take place at the Hyde Park Academy -- a few minutes drive from his Kenwood home and the park where Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on Jan. 29.

White House officials are designing the post-State of the Union event at the school, 6220 S. Stony Island, mainly (from their perspective) to help him sell his education, investment and business plans to hoist the poor into the middle class.

The overwhelming interest in Chicago, however, is what Obama is going to say about curbing gun violence and the soaring murder rate in his city.

Putting the event at a school in Obama's community and coming after his emotional appeal to Congress on Tuesday to vote on his gun proposals -- while first lady Michelle, who attended Hadiya's funeral in Chicago, sat next to her parents at the State of the Union -- all adds intensity to Obama's Friday visit.

Obama himself helped set the stage for this homecoming in the most memorable part of his State of the Union address. He talked about 15-year-old Hadiya, who was marking his inauguration in Washington on Jan. 21. "A week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house," the president said.

With that, Obama repeated several times a refrain that the Pendletons and others with lives changed forever by gun violence "deserve a vote" on his measures to help stop the bloodshed. Obama told the lawmakers to vote no if they want, but allow a "simple vote."

Well, nothing is quite that simple when it comes to the House and Senate. Here's what's behind the Obama "deserve a vote" strategy.

In Congress, a piece of legislation does not automatically "deserve" a vote. Most bills filed by members never get close to a vote in a committee, much less make it to the floor.

Representatives and senators through the decades have concocted all sorts of arcane rules to sidetrack and bury legislation. No major piece of legislation moves without the blessings of the House or Senate leadership. No bill automatically "deserves a vote."

Obama, aiming mainly at the GOP-controlled House, is trying to go over the heads of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team to build pressure for a vote. Most people don't follow the inner workings of Congress, so Obama seems incredibly reasonable in asking for a mere vote, when in fact what he wants is the exception, not the rule.

Obama's team knows that some gun measures have a chance of passing if there is an up or down vote, because they would need just a few dozen Republicans to add to an overwhemingly Democratic roll call.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) expects his panel to agree on legislation by early March. Leahy and Senate leaders have not decided yet if the major proposals -- universal background checks, a ban on high-capacity clips, a crackdown on trafficking and some version of an assault weapon ban -- have a better chance of passage if combined in a single bill or exist as stand-alone legislative pieces.

By Wednesday morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- the House Democratic political shop, with an eye at the 2014 mid-term elections -- had already cranked up its #TheyDeserveAVote campaign.

Boehner said again on Wednesday that the House will wait for the Democratic-run Senate to act first. "If the Senate acts, we'll be happy to take a look at what they do," he said.

View Obama's visit in a larger map

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama will speak at the Hyde Park Academy on Friday, returning home to push his second-term economic agenda and curbs on gun violence just a few blocks from his Kenwood home--and not far from where 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on Jan. 29.

Obama makes the afternoon trip at the school, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., as the last of a three-city swing to bolster the plans he discussed in his Tuesday night State of the Union Address. Today Obama is in Asheville, N.C. and tomorrow he is in the Atlanta area.

On Friday, White House senior officials have said Obama wants to talk about the "ladders of opportunity" programs outlined in his State of the Union Address. But the overwhelming interest in Chicago is what he will say about gun violence.

Obama took note of the Pendleton murder in his Tuesday address when he said she was killed about a mile from his home. Her parents, Cleopatra and Nate, watched as Obama spoke, sitting next to First Lady Michelle.

Said Obama in his speech, "Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house."

Obama made his last major appearence in his neighborhood when he spoke at an election rally the University of Chicago on the Midway before the November, 2010 mid-term election.

According to the White House, Obama is scheduled to return to Washington after the event.

WASHINGTON--Democratic House hopeful Robin Kelly picked up the endorsement Wednesday of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in the Democratic primary for the seat vacated by former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). Earlier this week Kelly got the backing of Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, both Illinois Democrats.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday night--and created a viral video when he lunged almost off camera to take a swig from a bottle of Poland Spring water.

I did not see this when it happened on live TV because I was in the House press gallery writing my column on the Obama speech on a tight deadline. After I was done, I headed down to the second floor of the Capitol where I ran into Todd Harris, Rubio's top political advisor. Harris was holding a Poland Spring bottle that appeared empty and when he told me this was THE bottle, I replied I did not get the reference.

"Watch the video," Harris advised.

Meanwhile, Rubio, hailed as the Republican "savior" on the cover of Time Magazine, invoked a standing political rule: defuse a situation with some self-deprecating humor. Rubio posted via Twitter a picture of the water bottle and joked about it on a Wednesday morning TV hit on FOX News Channel's "FOX & Friends."

Rubio said, "My mouth got dry, and I had to get some water. You know, when you give a speech, you have a podium and the water is right there, but when you don't, then you'll start looking around thinking, 'Where am I going to get the water from?' I figured I was better off just taking that water and taking the hit for it then being unable to pronounce my words at the end of it. It'd been a long day at work. We'd already done an 18-minute recording in Spanish -- and you know, my mouth got dry, what can I say? But I was happy overall with what we were able to deliver in the speech."

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama will pay tribute to slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton in his State of the Union message, to buttress his plea to Congress to allow measures to curb gun violence to at least come to a vote. Her parents, Cleopatra and Nathaniel were seated in the House chamber--guests of First Lady Michelle Obama--as Obama delivered his remarks.

Mrs. Obama attended Hadiya's funeral in Chicago on Saturday.

Obama is expected to say, "One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

"Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote."

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address is calling for an increase of the federal minimum wage to $9-a-hour--up from $7.25--and a boost from the $8.25 rate imposed on Illinois employers--part of his drive to bolster the middle class.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, Obama was expected to focus most of his speech on his second term domestic priorities, announcing a string of economic initiatives. Obama intends to underscore his proposals to lift up the working poor in Chicago on Friday, a senior administration official said.

Obama is also expected to push Congress to pass measures to curb gun violence and will invoke the name of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed on Jan. 29 in Harsh Park, about a mile from the Obama family Kenwood home. Her parents, Cleopatra and Nathaniel, watched Obama deliver the speech in the House chamber, sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama.

Turning to the economy, Obama--pitching Republicans as well as the nation--said he wanted government to work "smarter," not grow bigger.

"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 is expected to say.

Obama reiterated his calls for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and measures to reduce gun violence--topics he has much discussed in recent weeks--returning to the economy, a topic he barely mention in his Jan. 21 inauguration speech.

Plowing new ground Obama was expected to call for:

*Boosting the federal minimum wage in stages to $9 by the end of 2015, which would impact 15 million workers. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, in his State of the State address last week, called for raising the state base pay of $8.25 to $10-an-hour over the next four years. Obama is expected to make a significant push for the increase, expected to face tough opposition. Quinn also faces a very tough sell.

*Expanding pre-school opportunities for every low-and-moderate income child in the nation, much more ambitious then the current Head Start programs serving only the very poor.

*More clean energy research through the establishment of an "Energy Security Trust" to wean the nation from oil and gas, especially from foreign sources. The trust would be funded through oil and gas extracted from federal land and offshore.

*Rebuilding crumbling infrastructures--bridges and roads--through a "Fix-It First" program, with $40 billion for the upgrades needed the most. Of interest to Chicago and the state of Illinois, this could pump more money to the area for more long term funding for highways, rail and public transit. This would be financed in large part through the money saved by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

*The launching of 15 "Manufacturing Innovation Institutes" nationwide with a $1 billion investment to build partnerships between communities, governments, business, colleges and universities to help U.S. manufacturers. A pilot institute is up and running in Youngstown, Ohio. Obama will use his executive authority to three more institutes started this year.

*The creation of 20 experimental "Promise Zones" across the country to cut every piece of red tape to leverage private investment, create jobs, expand education opportunities, increase low-cost housing and cut crime. Obama is expected to highlight this during his Chicago visit.

*Improving cybersecurity through more information sharing through private-public partnerships.

*Addressing a string of voter problems in the November election, Obama is creating a bi-partisan election commission to be co-chaired by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, lawyers who advised the Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns.

*Reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 34,000 by this time next year, a decrease from the 66,000 now posted there. The goal is to continue to withdraw soldiers so that by 2014, Afghans take full responsibility for their security.

This keeps the U.S. and NATO on a timetable--much discussed at the NATO Summit in Chicago last year--to bring the Afghanistan war to an end by the close of 2014.

February 12, 2013

Remarks of President Barack Obama - As Prepared for Delivery
State of the Union Address
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Washington, DC

As Prepared for Delivery -

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, fellow citizens:

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress...It is my task," he said, "to report the State of the Union - to improve it is the task of us all."

Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before.

Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.

But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs - but too many people still can't find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs - but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.

It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth - a rising, thriving middle class.

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.

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

The American people don't expect government to solve every problem. They don't expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation's interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.

Our work must begin by making some basic decisions about our budget - decisions that will have a huge impact on the strength of our recovery.

Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion - mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

Now we need to finish the job. And the question is, how?

In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn't agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars' worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They'd devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That's why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as "the sequester," are a really bad idea.

Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits.

That idea is even worse. Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms - otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

But 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. We won't grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters. Most Americans - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents - understand that we can't just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share. And that's the approach I offer tonight.

On Medicare, I'm prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs. The reforms I'm proposing go even further. We'll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. We'll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn't be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital - they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don't violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn't make promises we cannot keep - but we must keep the promises we've already made.

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit. The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can't pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America. That's what tax reform can deliver. That's what we can do together.

I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won't be easy. The politics will be hard for both sides. 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. So let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.

Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let's be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. 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?

A year and a half ago, I put forward an American Jobs Act that independent economists said would create more than one million new jobs. I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda, and I urge this Congress to pass the rest. Tonight, I'll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. Let me repeat - nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.

Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.

After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.

There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend. Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There's no reason this can't happen in other towns. So tonight, I'm announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of fifteen of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America.

If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries ten times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.

After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar - with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before - and nearly everyone's energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it's too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We've begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let's generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let's drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That's why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let's take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we've put up with for far too long. I'm also issuing a new goal for America: let's cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

America's energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America - a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina - has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they'll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I've seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.

Tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First" program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden, I'm also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let's prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let's start right away.

Part of our rebuilding effort must also involve our housing sector. Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again.

But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That's holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it. Right now, there's a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today's rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What's holding us back? Let's streamline the process, and help our economy grow.

These initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, and housing will help entrepreneurs and small business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on - by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance.

Let's also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they're ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top - a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math - the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Now, even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It's a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class. But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it's our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new "College Scorecard" that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today's jobs require. But we also have to make sure that America remains a place where everyone who's willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead.

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

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made - putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship - a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. 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.

But we can't stop there. We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence. Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago. I urge the House to do the same. And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.

We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day's work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we've put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That's wrong. That's why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, nineteen states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.

Tonight, let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn't have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. So here's an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.

Tonight, let's also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it's virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.

Let's offer incentives to companies that hire Americans who've got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance. Let's put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods. And this year, my Administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We'll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, education, and housing. We'll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest. And we'll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood - because what makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child; it's having the courage to raise one.

Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America. It is this kind of prosperity - broad, shared, and built on a thriving middle class - that has always been the source of our progress at home. It is also the foundation of our power and influence throughout the world.

Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.

Beyond 2014, America's commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged - from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

Of course, our challenges don't end with al Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.

Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands - because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people's identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

That's why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.

Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today's world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union - because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.

Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change. I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon - when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American President into the home where she had been imprisoned for years; when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, "There is justice and law in the United States. I want our country to be like that."

In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can - and will - insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.

All this work depends on the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk - our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As long as I'm Commander-in-Chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world. We will invest in new capabilities, even as we reduce waste and wartime spending. We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families - gay and straight. We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat. We will keep faith with our veterans - investing in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities they have earned. And I want to thank my wife Michelle and Dr. Jill Biden for their continued dedication to serving our military families as well as they serve us.

But defending our freedom is not the job of our military alone. We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans - no matter where they live or what their party - are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That's why, tonight, I'm announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I'm asking two long-time experts in the field, who've recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney's campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.

Of course, what I've said tonight matters little if we don't come together to protect our most precious resource - our children.

It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans - Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment - have come together around commonsense reform - like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that's your choice. 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.

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

Hadiya's parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence - they deserve a simple vote.

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. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country. We should follow their example.

We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez. When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring - they were with the twenty precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read "I Voted."

We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside - even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.

When asked how he did that, Brian said, "That's just the way we're made."

That's just the way we're made.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens. It's a word that doesn't just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we're made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama will call for more investments to boost the middle class in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, telling the nation--and Republicans in Congress he is seeking to woo-- he wants "smarter," not bigger government "that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."

Obama will devote most of the speech to domestic proposals to bolster the economy while touching on immigration reform and measures to control gun violence. Obama will underscore his economic priorities during a Friday event in Chicago.

In excerpts provided by the White House Obama is expected to say:

"It is our generation's task, then, to reignite the true engine of America's economic growth - a rising, thriving middle class.

"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.

"It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours."

"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?"

"Tonight, I'll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. Let me repeat - nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."

WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama State of the Union guests dramatize the big issues President Barack Obama will talk about in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night as well as the causes she cares most about. Her box in the House chamber will include Chicagoans Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr., whose daughter, Hadiya was shot to death on Jan. 29 about a mile from the Obama family home in Kenwood.

Mrs. Obama's guests are the faces of issues concerning: female soldiers; youths who needs the DREAM Act passed to stay in the U.S. legally; STEM educators; early childhood education; growing small business; wounded vets; the CEO of Apple; Hurricane Sandy hero; vocational education; gays in the military; health care; Hispanics, equal pay for women; the Oak Creek, Wisc, shooting; income tax breaks; the Sandy Hook shooting; health care; healthy eating and voter suppression.

Here is the list, from the White House


Office of the Press Secretary



February 12, 2013

Guest List for the First Lady's Box

State of the Union Address

February 12, 2013

First Lady Michelle Obama

Dr. Jill Biden

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President

The following individuals will be seated in the box with the First Lady and Dr. Biden at the State of the Union Address:

Sergeant Sheena Adams (Vista, CA)

Team Advisor & Lead Instructor, Female Engagement Team

A native of Kauai, Hawaii, Sergeant Adams joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and attended recruit training in Parris Island, S.C. In 2010, Sergeant Adams joined the Female Engagement Team (FET) and was deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan from September 2010 to April 2011 in direct support of 1st Battalion 8th Marines in Musa Qal'eh District. Sergeant Adams received her Combat Action Ribbon and Navy and Marine Corp Achievement Medal (second award) after successful completion of the deployment. In September 2011, Sergeant Adams returned to 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Advisor Training Cell, as Team Advisor/Liaison and lead FET instructor, where she re-engineered the Period of Instruction for future FETs.

Alan Aleman (Las Vegas, NV)

DREAM Student

Alan Aleman was born in Mexico City, Mexico. In high school, Alan watched his friends come of age - driving around town with their new licenses and earning some extra cash from their summer jobs at the mall. Although Alan knew he could not do those things because of his immigration status, he was determined to get a good education. Last year, when Alan heard the news that the Obama Administration was going to provide Deferred Action for undocumented youth like him to emerge from the shadows, he was one of the first to sign up. Alan was among the first people in Nevada to get approved. In that moment, Alan said, "I felt the fear vanish. I felt accepted." Today, Alan is in his second year at the College of Southern Nevada. He's studying to become a doctor and he hopes to join the Air Force. Alan is currently working at Hermandad Mexicana, where he is in charge of final review for DACA applications.

Jack Andraka (Crownsville, MD)

Winner of the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Jack Andraka, 16, of North County High School, was awarded first place for his new method to detect pancreatic cancer at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2012, a program of Society for Science & the Public. Motivated by the death of his uncle due to pancreatic cancer, Jack created a simple dip-stick sensor based on diabetic test paper to test blood or urine to determine whether or not a patient has early-stage pancreatic cancer. His study resulted in over 90 percent accuracy and showed his patent-pending sensor to be 28 times faster, 28 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than current tests. President Obama strongly believes that we need more students like Jack who are passionate about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and has hosted two White House Science Fairs to celebrate students participating in such competitions.

Susan Bumgarner (Norman, OK)

Early Childhood Educator

Susan Bumgarner's home state of Oklahoma is a national leader in providing access to high quality preschool for all children, and she has been an early educator in the Oklahoma system for more than twenty years. Susan was educated at the University of Oklahoma and influenced by family members who taught and studied there. Susan has written curriculum, trained Head Start teachers, taught infants and toddlers, and prepared parents by teaching Early Birds readiness class. In 1992 Susan began teaching pre-kindergarten at what is now Wilson Arts Integration Elementary School, a public school. "My work is enthralling and my students are amazing, creative, intelligent people," she said. "It is an honor to facilitate their playful transition into the formal world of learning."

Deb Carey (New Glarus, WI)

Small Business Owner, New Glarus Brewing Company

Deborah Carey's decision to start New Glarus Brewing Company was rooted in doing what was best for her family. As she worked on a business plan, her husband Dan, a master brewer, gathered the materials, grains and equipment needed for start-up. In 1993 they negotiated to rent a warehouse in New Glarus, exchanging the lease for stock in the New Glarus Brewing Company. They sold their home and raised $40,000 in seed money, but still needed more funding. Deborah pitched her story to local newspapers, and the media attention brought $200,000 from investors. In the early days, the couple worked hard to establish the brewery's reputation for consistent quality beers and developed a very loyal customer base. Today, New Glarus Brewing Company has grown to 50 full-time employees, and registered growth in profits of 123 percent from 2007 to 2009, becoming Wisconsin's number one micro-brewery relative to sales volume.

Sergeant Carlos Evans, USMC (Cameron, NC)

Wounded Warrior

Sergeant Evans, born in Puerto Rico, was on his fourth overseas deployment when he sustained injuries in Afghanistan that resulted in the loss of both of his legs and his left hand. Recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, Sergeant Evans met the First Lady and later visited the White House for a Wounded Warrior Tour. At that time, the President signed his prosthetic arm. He credits the support he has received from private organizations to the First Lady and Dr. Biden's efforts in Joining Forces. In 2012, he received a custom home from Operation Coming Home and now resides in North Carolina with his wife and two young daughters.

Tim Cook (Cupertino, CA)

CEO of Apple
Before being named CEO in August 2011, Tim was Apple's Chief Operating Officer and was responsible for all of the company's worldwide sales and operations, including end-to-end management of Apple's supply chain, sales activities, and service and support in all markets and countries. He also headed Apple's Macintosh division and played a key role in the continued development of strategic reseller and supplier relationships, ensuring flexibility in response to an increasingly demanding marketplace.

Prior to joining Apple, Tim was vice president of Corporate Materials for Compaq and was responsible for procuring and managing all of Compaq's product inventory. Previous to his work at Compaq, Tim was the chief operating officer of the Reseller Division at Intelligent Electronics. Tim also spent 12 years with IBM, most recently as director of North American Fulfillment where he led manufacturing and distribution functions for IBM's Personal Computer Company in North and Latin America.

Tim earned an M.B.A. from Duke University, where he was a Fuqua Scholar, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering from Auburn University.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton and Nathaniel A. Pendleton Sr. (Chicago, IL)

Cleopatra and Nathaniel's daughter Hadiya Pendleton was murdered on January 29, 2013, when she was shot and killed in Harsh Park on Chicago's South Side. Hadiya had participated in President Obama's public inaugural celebration on January 21, 2013. She was an honor student and band majorette at King College Prep High School. First Lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya's memorial service on Saturday, February 6th.

Menchu de Luna Sanchez (Secaucus, NJ)

Registered Nurse, NYU Langone Medical Center

When Hurricane Sandy cut the power at NYU Langone Medical Center, Menchu Sanchez, a Registered Nurse, devised a plan to transport twenty at-risk infants to intensive care units around the city. She organized the nurses and doctors to carefully carry the babies down eight flights of stairs with only cell phones to light the way. Even as Menchu's own home was flooding, she thought only of protecting the babies in her care. Menchu was born, raised, and educated in the Philippines and she immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. She has worked as a nurse in New York for more than 25 years, and has been at NYU since 2010. Menchu currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children, both of whom are in college.

Bobak Ferdowsi (Pasadena, CA)

Flight Director, Mars Curiosity Rover

Bobak Ferdowsi, aka NASA's "Mohawk Guy," is a member of the Mars Curiosity rover team at NASA and Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. After the successful landing of the Curiosity rover in August 2012, President Obama called to congratulate the team on their success, and singled out Bobak for his unique haircut that captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. The Curiosity rover is a car-sized robot equipped with a laser, chemistry set, and drill for assessing whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms. Bobak is an Iranian-American and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professional who, in addition to his inspiring day-to-day work on the Mars Curiosity mission, volunteers as a FIRST robotics mentor to get more boys and girls excited about STEM education.

Bradley Henning (Louisville, KY)

Machinist, Atlas Machine and Supply

Bradley Henning's high school has one of the best machining programs in Kentucky. He got hooked on machining in his sophomore year, and by the time he graduated, Bradley had taken enough vocational classes to get hired as a full-time apprentice with Atlas Machine and Supply in Louisville, Kentucky. For the past four years, Bradley has worked under a veteran machinist and is taking additional classes to earn his full certification. Today, at 23, he is a card-carrying Journeyman Machinist at Atlas, and responsible for mentoring the next generation of apprentices. Bradley is committed to a career in manufacturing and sees a bright future ahead. "This is going to be my lifelong career," he said. "I come in every day with a smile on my face. I learn something new every day...I love that."

Tracey Hepner (Arlington, VA)

Co-Founder, Military Partners and Families Coalition

Tracey is a co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC), which provides support, resources, education, and advocacy for LGBT military partners and their families. Outside of her work with MPFC, Tracey works full time for the Department of Homeland Security as a Master Behavior Detection Officer. She is married to the first openly gay or lesbian general officer in the military, Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith.

Peter Hudson (Evergreen, CO)

Co-Founder and CEO, iTriage

Dr. Peter Hudson, the co-founder and CEO of iTriage, is a physician and entrepreneur with more than 15 years of experience founding and growing healthcare-related businesses. His focus has been on creating efficiencies within the healthcare delivery system, and empowering healthcare consumers with technology. Using open government data, Dr. Hudson launched iTriage in 2009, a company focused on prompting citizens to actively engage in their own healthcare. Through the app, an example of government inspired innovation, smartphone users can locate nearby providers based on their symptoms, make appointments, store their personal health records, save medication refill reminders, and learn about thousands of medications, diseases and procedures.

Governor John Kitzhaber (D-OR)

Governor John Kitzhaber has built on his experience as a former emergency room doctor to transform health care delivery in Oregon. Now in his third term, Governor Kitzhaber is working with the Obama administration to scale up innovative models that show how government can do more with less. These performance partnerships, which emphasize federal flexibility and local accountability, are key to achieving improved health care outcomes and efficiencies, better results for our students and building the infrastructure we'll need to unleash the 21st century economy.

Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers (Avondale, AZ)

Marie Lopez Rogers served on the Avondale City Council for 14 years before being elected as the city's first Latina Mayor in 2006. Growing up in migrant farm labor camps and picking cotton alongside her parents in fields where her City Hall now stands, Mayor Rogers never imagined that she would be guiding the transformation of the region. Mayor Rogers currently serves as Chair of the Maricopa Association of Governments. In Dec. 2012, she was named president of the National League of Cities, an organization dedicated to helping city leaders build better communities. She and her husband Ed have been married for 43 years and have three children and six grandchildren.

Amanda E. McMillan (Jackson, MS)

Pay Discrimination Victim

For a number of years Amanda McMillan worked as a secretary for the owner of a Forrest City Grocery Company. She was doing many of the same duties as male salespeople, but at lower pay. Despite repeatedly asking to be officially promoted to the better and higher-paying job in sales, she was told by the company that the job of a salesman was too dangerous for a woman, and that she would not be a good mother if she were on the road meeting customers. With the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), she sued the company for sex discrimination. The lawsuit charged that Forrest City Grocery denied sales positions to an employee because she was a woman and paid McMillan less than men doing the same work. When asked why she has pursued the case, McMillan said, "I'm doing this because it was wrong and I could never look my girls in the face and then tell them they live in America and could be anything they wanted to be."As a result of the suit, Forrest City Grocery agreed to pay $125,000 in monetary damages and agreed to disseminate employment policies to employees and provide ongoing training for management on sex discrimination. Amanda, a mother of three, currently lives in Jackson, MS.

Lee Maxwell (Wilton, IA)

Graduate, Kirkwood Community College Wind Technician Program

In 2012, Lee Maxwell graduated from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He gained twenty six separate certifications in everything from reading blueprints to driving forklifts. Today, he's responsible for turning on the power for new wind turbines that are being built all around the country. Kirkwood started its wind technician training program three years ago in partnership with Iowa-based Clipper Windpower, combining an industry-based curriculum and donated equipment to give students the hands-on experience they need to succeed.

Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Oak Creek, WI)

Lieutenant Brian Murphy was the first police officer to arrive at the scene of the tragic Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last August. Lt. Murphy directly confronted the shooter, and took fifteen bullets to his head, neck, and body before the rest of the police force arrived. When his fellow officers moved to assist him, he waved them off and told them to protect the threatened citizens who remained in the temple. When asked how he was able to respond with such bravery, Lt. Murphy responded, "That's just the way we're made." Today, Lt. Murphy is on medical leave from the force and still recovering from his injuries. Lt. Murphy has served as a police officer for more than twenty years and previously served in the Marine Corps and the United National security force. He lives with his wife and children in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Lisa Richards (Arlington, VA)

#My2K Participant

Lisa Richards, a single mom, was one of thousands of Americans who shared stories about what paying $2,200 more in taxes would mean for her family by using #My2K. She wrote, "It's 20 weeks of groceries, two years worth of gasoline, 1/3 of a new roof (which I need), six months of utilities." With the passage of the middle class tax cuts at the beginning of the year, Lisa and millions of Americans like her did not see did not see an income tax increase. Born in Philadelphia and raised in New York and Dallas, Lisa has called the Washington, DC area home for more than 25 years. She now lives in Arlington, Virginia with her seven-year-old daughter working freelance and contract work for a variety of website clients.

Kaitlin Roig (Greenwich, CT)

1st Grade Teacher, Sandy Hook Elementary School

Kaitlin Roig has taught first grade for six years at Sandy Hook Elementary, and has always had a passion for education and working with children. She attended and received her Master's degree from the NEAG School of Education at the University of Connecticut, where she was a member of the Order of Omega Honor Society, The Historical Honor Society, and the NEAG honor society. In addition to her teaching, Kaitlin also started a running club called Marathon Mondays for third and fourth grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary. She will be running the New York City Marathon this year.

Abby Schanfield (Minneapolis, MN)

ACA Beneficiary

Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Abby would have lost coverage upon turning 21 and would not have been able to obtain care due to her several pre-existing conditions. Abby is a member of TakeAction Minnesota's healthcare team, a grassroots organization that advocates for progressive policies ranging from health care to economic reform. Abby was influenced by her experiences growing up with a chronic illness, and the privileges that come with being insured. A recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, Abby hopes to work in public policy, focusing on women's and community health.

Haile Thomas (Tucson, AZ)

Let's Move! Champion

Haile Thomas is a 12 year-old Youth Advisory Board member with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. She is Co-Founder/Director of the HAPPY Organization, an Arizona nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and wellness of youth through education, outreach, and advocacy about proper nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices. Haile hosts an annual H.E.A.L. (healthy eating, active lifestyle) Festival on Global Youth Service Day in Tucson. She created the Healthy Girl Adventures Club to inspire girls to embrace healthy habits, and produces online cooking videos aimed at encouraging kids to get cooking. Haile is also the Youth Spokesperson and Jr. Chef Consultant for Hyatt Hotels.

Desiline Victor (Miami, FL)

Desiline Victor, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti and retired farmworker, is 102 years old. On October 28, the first Sunday of early voting in Florida, Desiline went to vote at her polling place, a local library. When she arrived at 10:00 a.m., wait times were up to six hours. Determined to vote, she stood in line for three hours, until 1:00 p.m. After citizen advocates complained that the elderly woman was struggling on her feet, a poll worker asked Desiline to come back at a later time. On Desiline's second visit that evening, she was finally able to cast her ballot. When she emerged from the building with her "I Voted" sticker, the crowd of thousands of waiting voters erupted into applause. Several voters remarked that the lines were long, and they needed to get home, but because of Desiline they would continue to stand and wait. Desiline resides in North Miami, where she is lovingly known as "Granny" among the city's Haitian community. A spirited and independent centenarian, she enjoys attending church services and cooking her own meals.


The link is HERE for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) opening remarks of the Senate Judiciary Committee Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee hearing on Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence and the Second Amendment.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night will announce "that 34,000 U.S. troops will return home from Afghanistan by this time next year, decreasing by half the number of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan. Further reductions will continue through the end of 2014 as Afghans take full responsibility for their security," a senior administration said Tuesday morning.

This keeps the U.S. and NATO on a timetable--much discussed at the NATO Summit in Chicago last year--to bring the Afghanistan war to an end by the close of 2014.

From the official: "Thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, our Afghan partners and ISAF partners from 49 countries, we have struck devastating blows against al Qaeda, and Afghan forces continue to grow stronger, with 352,000 now in training or on duty. Afghan forces are leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country, and by this spring, they'll be assuming the lead across the entire country, with the United States and ISAF stepped back to a train, advise and assist role. In that capacity, we will no longer be leading combat operations, but will provide support to the Afghans as they lead operations through the crucial fighting seasons of 2013 and 2014. By the end of 2014, we will responsibly bring our war in Afghanistan to a close.

"At the NATO Summits in Lisbon and Chicago, the United States and our partners laid out a transition plan that would lead to the Afghan Government having full responsibility for security by the end of 2014. We are implementing that plan in a way that strengthens Afghan capacity and respects Afghan sovereignty, while preserving the important gains that have been made in recent years. The President made his decision based on the recommendations of the military and his National Security team, as well as consultations with President Karzai and our international coalition partners. Before making his announcement, President Obama spoke on the phone with President Karzai, Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Merkel to inform them of his decision."

Obama is not expected to release details tonight on the looming major issue of how many trips will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

WASHINGTON--Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) State of the Union address Tuesday nigh guest is Keith Bryant, a student trustee at Joliet Junior College.

From Foster: "Bryant is a nontraditional student who began studies at JJC after leaving a career in construction. Bryant is studying network system security and information technology and expects to graduate in May of 2014.

"I am honored to have Mr. Bryant as my guest for the State of the Union address," said Foster. "His story serves as an important reminder of the need to invest in education and in training to equip workers with the skills needed to succeed in today's economy. As we face potentially devastating cuts from the sequestration, I urge my colleagues in Congress to remember people like Mr. Bryant who are working to build a better future for their families and communities with training and education to get them on the path towards a career that will last."

WASHINGTON--Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) guest for the State of the Union address on Tuesday night is Denise Reed, whose daughter, Starkesia, was shot to death in Chicago at the age of 14.

From Duckworth: "Denise Reed is a founding member of Purpose Over Pain, an organization committed to the relentless pursuit of solutions to gun violence. State Senator Dan Katowski recommended that Duckworth invite Reed as a way to further the debate on gun violence.

"I am inspired by Denise Reed's courage in sharing her story and proud to have her with me on Tuesday to stand against the tragic shootings that have taken place in Newtown, Chicago and throughout our country," said Duckworth. "We cannot wait on the sidelines while children like Starkesia are needlessly taken away from their families. My colleagues and I must show the same determination and bravery as Mrs. Reed in demanding common sense reforms that will help protect our children."

WASHINGTON--Reps. Peter Roskam and Adam Kinzinger, both Illinois Republicans and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) guests for the State of the Union speech Tuesday night are family members. Kinzinger is bringing his sister, Roskam is taking one of his kids and Lipinski is

WASHINGTON--In 2005, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) started his tradition of asking wounded Illinois soldiers to be his guest at the State of the Union--with then Army Major Tammy Duckworth his guest that year. Now Duckworth is a member of Congress--in a political career launched by Durbin, who met her that State of the Union night.

On Tuesday, Durbin's guest is Sergeant First Class Pedro Ortiz-Roman from Chicago.

"Sergeant First Class Ortiz has given so much in service to our nation. I think it is only fitting that he is here tonight to be a part of this special moment in our nation's history - the State of the Union address," said Durbin. "I am humbled by his service and honored to introduce him to my Senate colleagues and have him as my guest this evening."

Bio, via Durbin release:

Sergeant First Class Pedro Ortiz-Roman was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and moved to Chicago as a child. He joined the Army in April 2001. After spending five years in the Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Georgia, he served five additional active duty years with the 7th Special Forces Group before joining the U.S. Army National Guard 20th Special Forces Group.

During his 12 year career, Sergeant First Class Ortiz deployed on a total of 7 combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn. In Iraq he received a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with Valor while saving fellow Rangers pinned by enemy fire. His additional deployments to train commandos include South Africa, Suriname, and Panama.

Sergeant First Class Ortiz suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder while deployed in Panama in March 2012. After receiving treatments in Florida, he was moved to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he has been treated for the last six months. He plans to return to his wife and two children in Chicago when released from Walter Reed.

WASHINGTON-- Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a congressional leader on immigration reform, guest for the State of the Union address on Tuesday night is Gabino Sanchez, a South Carolina man facing deportation because he entered the country illegally when he was 15.

Gutierrez has been highly critical of President Barack Obama's deportation policies and has been championing Sanchez's fight to stay in the U.S.

From Gutierrez:

The Congressman met Sanchez in November 2011 and pledged to help him fight deportation. The Congressman accompanied Sanchez to his first supervision appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Charleston, S.C. to ask that his deportation case be closed and attended two subsequent hearings (March 12, and May 15, 2012) before an immigration judge in Charlotte, North Carolina

In May 2012, Sanchez was granted a 12 month continuance in his case as he pursued relief from deportation, which under current immigration laws, allows him a permit to work legally and apply for a driver's license, which he has done. This month, Sanchez was granted an additional month to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the special deportation relief process set up by the Obama Administration for immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Representative Gutierrez sees the deportation case against Sanchez as a test of the President's deportation policies, and especially the guidelines, announced by President Obama in 2011, that are supposed to prioritize deportations of immigrants who have committed serious crimes like rape and murder and apply "prosecutorial discretion" to close deportation cases against immigrants with deep ties to the United States, U.S. citizen children, and no significant criminal history.

WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama turns to gun violence during his State of the Union speech Tuesday, he will likely look up at Michelle Obama's box in the House chamber and acknowledge the grieving Chicago parents of slain teen Hadiya Pendleton.

Pendleton's folks, Cleopatra and Nathaniel, through tragedy, are the latest symbols of why Obama is pushing Congress to take measures to stop gun-related bloodshed.

Hadiya, 15, was gunned down Jan. 29 at Harsh Park about a mile from the Kenwood home of the Obama family, a little more than a week after traveling here for Obama's inauguration.

Other members of the Pendleton family are expected to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, attending a Senate Judiciary Subcommitee hearing chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin on how Congress can respect Second Amendment rights to bear arms, while at the same time take steps to curb gun violence.

The hearing will feature a Chicago witness, Sandra Wortham, the sister of slain Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, an Iraq War vet shot and killed by a handgun at the age of 30 on May 20, 2010, during a robbery attempt in front of his parents' Chatham home.

The audience will include more than 100 victims of gun violence, including Chicago's Annette Nance-Holt who was at the White House last month when Obama unveiled his comprehensive package of proposals to curb gun violence. Her son, Blair, was 16 and a student at Julian High School in Chicago when he was gunned down by a reputed gang member while on his way home from school in 2007.

Mrs. Obama -- whose daughters are 14 and 11 -- took a very unusual action for a first lady last Saturday, returning home to the South Side for Hadiya's funeral -- someone she did not know but nonetheless felt a deep personal connection toward.

Asking Hadiya's folks to be her State of the Union guests in her box is extraordinary follow-through -- but makes perfect sense, because at her core, Mrs. Obama is very, very proud of being a South Sider, albeit one with a remarkable trajectory. Hadiya was killed on Mrs. Obama's turf and she is doing something about it.

Rep. Bobby Rush -- whose son, Huey, was shot and killed during a 1999 holdup -- was also at Hadiya's funeral and he told me Monday, "I saw the face of the first lady and I saw the pain in her face."

Former President Ronald Reagan started the tradition of inviting everyday citizens or heroes to State of the Union speeches when in 1982 he asked Lenny Skutnik to be his guest in the House gallery after Skutnik rescued a woman from the Potomac River after an Air Florida plane crash.

Presidents, through the guests they invite to the State of the Union, "want to dramatize the human element in the policies they are proposing," Towson University presidential scholar Prof. Martha Joynt Kumar told me.

A major theme of Obama's speech will be boosting the economy, and guests of the president and Mrs. Obama in the gallery will put human faces on his proposals on job creation, immigration, energy and, of course, guns.

Then Obama hits the road to sell his State of the Union plans: Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday, the Atlanta area Thursday and home to Chicago on Friday, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been wrestling with the city's soaring murder rate.

Hadiya, as her parents know --and the nation will see on Tuesday night -- is not a statistic. She is a teen we should not have lost.

RAHM FOOTNOTE: Emanuel is scheduled to be in Washington on Thursday; among his meetings will be a lunch with Illinois members of Congress in the Capitol.

WASHINGTON--Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) guest for the State of the Union on Tuesday night is Illinois Senate President Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago).

WASHINGTON--The parents of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton will attend President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday as guests of First Lady Michelle Obama, sitting in her box in the House chamber for the speech.

Mrs. Obama, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all South Siders, traveled to Chicago on Saturday to attend the funeral for the 15-year-old, shot to death in a park about a mile from the Obama family Kenwood home.

I reported on Sunday that Cleopatra Pendleton will be at the State of the Union; on Monday a White House spokesman confirmed that Nathaniel Pendleton, Hadiya's father, will also be at sitting in Mrs. Obama's box.

On Sunday I asked Jarret about their visit home for the funeral. "It's very personal for us," she replied.

"The first lady and I grew up in Chicago and before we moved to D.C., we raised our daughters about a mile from where Hadiya was killed. Chicago still feels like home and our hearts just goes out to the Pendleton family who raised an amazing daughter and we thought it would be important to demonstrate the grief that we're feeling in person.

"It's a reminder at a very personal level about what each of these children mean to us. We may not have known her, but she's feels like a part of our family, too.

"There have been so many tragic deaths around the country and the individual deaths don't receive the attention that the tragedies in Aurora or Newtown receive, but the impact it has on the family involved is just as devastating."

WASHINGTON--Democratic House hopeful Robin Kelly, running to replace Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., picked up the endorsement Sunday of Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis, both Illinois Democrats. On Tuesday, I'm told Kelly will be Rush's guest when President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union Address in the House chamber.

Early voting in the Illinois Second Congressional District starts today--Monday.
The primary is Feb. 26 and the winner in the heavily Democratic district faces only nominal Republican opposition in the April general election.

In making the endorsement, Rush and Davis said in statements:

"Our communities are facing an epidemic of gun violence, and we need more members of Congress who can be trusted to fight for common sense gun control measures. Robin Kelly is a woman of integrity and conviction, and President Obama, Congressman Davis and I need her as our partner in ending gun violence," said Congressman Bobby Rush.

"Robin Kelly has the kind of pragmatism that you need to get results in Washington, while never compromising her beliefs like many do. If we are going to stop the NRA in their tracks, and make our communities safe again, Robin Kelly is the right woman for the job," said Congressman Danny Davis.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's visit to Chicago on Friday will shine a brighter spotlight on the failure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief Garry McCarthy to curb gun violence in his hometown.

That's the byproduct of Obama coming home days after his wife, Michelle, attended the Saturday funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old South Sider who was gunned down in a park about a mile from the Obamas' Kenwood home on Jan 29.

The Chicago stop is part of Obama's push to promote the second-term priorities he will discuss Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, where he is expected to discuss his gun-related proposals, forged after the Sandy Hook school massacre. Hadiya's mother, Cleopatra Pendleton, is going to be in the House chamber as a guest when Obama delivers that speech, the Pendleton family's spokeswoman, Shatira Wilks, confirmed to me late Sunday.

To Chicagoans, whatever economic messages Obama wants to underscore Friday will take a back seat to anything he says about the slaughters on the streets of Chicago -- 506 murders in 2012, up 16 percent from 2011 -- all happening on Emanuel's watch.

A White House official said on Sunday that Obama will travel to Chicago for "an event amplifying some of the policy proposals included in the State of the Union that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and the Americans striving to get there."

"He'll, of course, also talk about the gun violence that has tragically affected too many families in communities across Chicago and across the country," the official said.

Obama's return home in the wake of another horrific Chicago murder -- of a teen who did everything right, who just a week before her death attended Obama's inauguration in Washington -- well, it also makes the visit undeniably personal for the father of two daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11.

White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett attended Hadiya's funeral with Michelle Obama. She grew up a block north of the Obama family home in Kenwood.

I asked Jarrett on Sunday about their visit home for the funeral. "It's very personal for us," she replied.

"The first lady and I grew up in Chicago and before we moved to D.C., we raised our daughters about a mile from where Hadiya was killed. Chicago still feels like home and our hearts just goes out to the Pendleton family who raised an amazing daughter and we thought it would be important to demonstrate the grief that we're feeling in person.

"It's a reminder at a very personal level about what each of these children mean to us. We may not have known her, but she's feels like a part of our family, too.

"There have been so many tragic deaths around the country and the individual deaths don't receive the attention that the tragedies in Aurora or Newtown receive, but the impact it has on the family involved is just as devastating."

Where Obama will speak in Chicago was not locked-in as of Sunday, but I am told that it will likely be in a school or library in a community affected by gun violence -- which means on the South or West Side.

Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, is still constantly in touch with the White House and presumably could have vetoed the Obama trip. He still has a lot of juice at the White House.

But he did not.

I talked with an Emanuel top strategist on Sunday and from Emanuel's perspective, the plus is the president will make it clear that brutal violence is not unique to Chicago and that Congress needs to pass federal laws cracking down on gun-trafficking while imposing background checks on all gun sales. Those steps are needed to help stem the flow of guns into the city.

But that's hardly a life preserver to throw to Emanuel.

The minus -- and it is a big one -- is that Obama's visit will put a renewed national and maybe even international focus on the epidemic of shootings in Chicago, with innocent victims caught in the cross-fire, and Emanuel's inability to get a handle on the soaring murder rate.

Community activists have been pleading for years for Obama to come home and help.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson told me Sunday, "Chicago is in a state of emergency and I think [Obama] recognizes that."

I asked Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) about the impact of Obama's visit, and he told me the president might be able to make an appeal to the criminals "who are carrying out a small land war in certain neighborhoods of Chicago. This somehow has to end."

And the pressure is on Emanuel to end it.

WASHINGTON--President Barack Obama comes home to Chicago on Friday, adding the trip to his post-State of the Union swing to push his second term policy plans to bolster the economy--and to address gun violence in Chicago and other cities.

The White House announced the trip on Sunday, the day after First Lady Michelle attended a funeral for a South Side teen gunned down near their Kenwood home.

His visit will throw a spotlight on the city's inability to curb shootings--with 506 murdered in 2012, a 16 percent increase from 2011.

Obama's Tuesday State of the Union address is expected to dwell on the economy with a portion devoted to Obama's push for legislation to curb gun violence, proposed in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre.

A White House official said on Sunday Obama will travel to Chicago for "an event amplifying some of the policy proposals included in the State of the Union that focus on strengthening the economy for the middle class and the Americans striving to get there.

"He'll, of course, also talk about the gun violence that has tragically affected too many families in communities across Chicago and across the country."

On Saturday, Mrs. Obama, White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan--all raised on the South Side--attended the funeral for Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old shot to death on Jan. 29, just days after traveling to Washington for Obama's inauguration.

They sat in the sanctuary of the Greater Harvest Baptist Church with other family, friends and dignitaries of the youth mourning her life cut short when she was murdered last month at Harsh Park, 4458-70 S. Oakenwald, about a mile from the Obama house on South Greenwood.

Jarrett's family home is a block north of the Obama residence.

The Chicago trip appears to have been added to the Obama schedule for this week--or kept under wraps, because it was not part of his week ahead calendar publically released last Friday.

Obama is buttressing his State of the Union messages next week with domestic travel to discuss his priorities. On Wednesday, Obama travels to Asheville, North Carolina; on Thursday he heads to the Atlanta, Georgia area. On Friday, the day of his Chicago trip. Obama meets with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy in the Oval Office in the morning.

Obama's last visit to Chicago was in November, where he celebrated his re-election to a second term at McCormick Place.

Obama returns as he is addressing gun violence for the first time in his presidency--and amidst calls that he personally takes action to stop the shootings in the city that launched his political career.

Chicago has been grappling with youth violence for years. On Oct. 7, 2009, Obama dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder and Duncan to Chicago to try to find ways to end chronic brutality in the city after Fenger High School student Derrion Albert was fatally beaten.

on Twitter: @lynnsweet

kirk RIC team.jpeg
Mike Klonowski at podium with Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago team in the Capitol on Jan. 3, 2013 discussing Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) stroke recovery treatment. (photo by Lynn Sweet)

WASHINGTON--Recovering stroke victim Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is inviting Mike Klonowski, a Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago physical therapist who treated him, to be his guest at the Tuesday State of Union Address.

The RIC on Facebook said, "Therapists Rock! That's the message our very own former patient, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) wants everyone to hear -- so to shine a much-deserved spotlight on these very talented and committed caregivers, Senator Kirk has invited RIC's Mike Klonowski -- a mainstay on our 9th floor AbilityLab(TM) -- to be a special guest at Tuesday's State of the Union address.

"We couldn't be prouder of Mike and our entire RIC team of Physical, Occupational and Speech Therapists. Leveraging RIC's world-class science and care, we thank you for your work to Advance Human Ability," the entry said.

Klonowski was part of the RIC team who helped Kirk, who returned to the Senate on Jan. 3 almost a year after suffering a stroke.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two leader in the Senate and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) hit the Sunday talk shows on this weekend before President Barack Obama's Tuesday State of the Union address.

Durbin will be on NBC's "Meet the Press" along with Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader.

Schakowsky will be on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley." The show is on live at 8 a.m. Chicago time and rebroadcasts at 11 a.m.

Click HERE for the Sun-Times coverage by MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA and MARK BROWN of the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton gunned down in Chicago days after attending President Barack Obama's inauguration. First Lady Michelle Obama, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan among the dignitaries at the funeral.

Sun-Times video by Jon Sall

carolyn murray.jpeg Carolyn Murray. Photo by Joel Lerner, Sun-Times Media Group

WASHINGTON--Evanston's Carolyn Murray, whose son Justin was shot last year, will be the guest of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) at President Barack Obama's Tuesday State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

Schakowsky is throwing a spotlight on Murray as Congress is considering a variety of measures to curb gun violence, prompted this time by the Sandy Hook school massacre and Obama is expected to push the House and Senate to act in his address. Democrats are being asked to use their State of the Union guest tickets to bring victims of gun violence to the House chamber for the speech.

Justin Murray, 19, was visiting from San Diego when he was gunned down in front of his grandmother's Evanston home on Nov. 29, 2012.

As Schakowsky noted in a release, "as a prior Naval Reservist and longtime community activist, Ms. Murray began organizing a gun buyback program in the summer of 2012. She even organized an event held on December 15, less than three weeks after Justin's death, where nearly 50 guns were collected.

"Ms. Murray continues to take a stand against gun violence through her work as the Co-Chair of West Evanston Strategic Team and with the Evanston Community Foundation.

"I'm so grateful to welcome Carolyn Murray as my State of the Union guest this year. Ms. Murray has turned her pain into power through her tireless work against gun violence and she is truly making a difference in our community, preventing further violence and saving lives," Congresswoman Schakowsky said. "Our home district in Illinois has seen a great deal of gun violence already this year. It's crucial that we take action against gun violence, so that we can prevent the senseless deaths in the future."

"I'm very excited to join Congresswoman Schakowsky at the State of the Union Address in honor of my son, Justin," said Ms. Murray. "Too many young people have been killed by guns, and it must end. As the mother of a young victim, I'm committed to doing everything in my power to end gun violence. The time is now for Congress to act to save lives."

Obama to visit Israel

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President Barack Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan this spring, moves that could jumpstart the stalled Mideast peace process -- and perhaps improve relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The White House on Tuesday was forced to confirm Obama's trip -- reluctantly speaking only of a spring visit after it was first reported on Israel's Channel 10 news that Obama would arrive on March 20.

This will be Obama's first trip to Israel as president -- and comes after he overwhelmingly won the Jewish vote in November even after being slammed by some for not traveling to Israel in his first term (feeding into ungrounded accusations by Mitt Romney, a longtime Netanyahu friend, that Obama did not stand with Israel).

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel put it at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., last December, Netanyahu "bet" on the U.S. election and "lost."

That Obama is heading to Israel on what may be the first international trip of his second term is no surprise. During the campaign, Obama's team dealing with Jewish voter outreach said the president would visit if re-elected. New Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to land in Israel this month.

The Obama timing is interesting because it also could have an impact on Israel's domestic politics. Netanyahu came out of Israeli elections on Jan. 22 poised to remain prime minister, but with a much-weakened hand. Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a governing coalition and Obama's visit may complicate negotiations between Netanyahu and his new rival, Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party -- to Netanyahu's favor.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama and Netanyahu discussed the upcoming trip on Jan. 28.

"The start of the president's second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria," Carney said.

The swing, Carney said, will also include the West Bank and Jordan.

Obama visited Jordan, Israel and the West Bank during the 2008 election campaign. One of the enduring images of that trip was Obama donning a white yarmulke to pay his respects to Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem and to pray at the Western Wall.

Obama also traveled to Israel in 2005 -- in his first year as an Illinois senator -- in a trip arranged in part by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Israelis have their issues with Obama.

Obama's June 4, 2009, "message to the Muslim world" speech in Cairo helped create the testy relationship with Netanyahu when he said the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" and called for settlement construction to stop.

What's important here for Mideast negotiations: Obama will have a chance in Israel to win support of skeptical Israelis and show he can be an honest broker. And Lapid's party is seen as more centrist -- possibly moderating Netanyahu's hawkish views when it comes to dealing with the Palestinian Authority.

Obama Feb. 4, 2013 week ahead

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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