President Barack Obama challenged Congress to join him in taking on "our generation's task" to ignite the growth of a "rising, thriving middle class," using the first State of the Union address of his second term to prod Republicans to compromise on the major challenges facing the nation.
"It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country -- the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love," Obama said Tuesday night, sounding familiar themes from his re-election campaign last year.
The president emphasized economic growth and job creation, and insisted that his proposals would not increase the nation's deficit, though the White House offered no price tag on his initiatives.
He also made an emotional plea for Congress to hold votes on controversial proposals for tougher gun laws after the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings in December that killed 20 schoolchildren.
At the same time, Obama called for legislators to work together for the good of the nation, saying Americans "expect us to put the nation's interests before party."
"They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can," he said. "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."
A determined Florida centenarian who had to make two trips and wait several hours to vote for President Barack Obama last fall joined first lady Michelle Obama for the address. Her resolve to cast a ballot became a symbol of early voting obstacles in the presidential election.
Desiline Victor, 102, of Miami, endured a weather-delayed flight to Washington on Monday in order to get to town for Obama's address. She was among the guests seated in the House visitors' gallery, an opportunity she called "a beautiful thing."
During his address, Obama cited Victor as an example worth following, saying she was concerned about "whether folks like her would get to have their say."
It was his fourth State of the Union address and seventh speech to a joint sitting of Congress, and analysts considered it a crucial moment for setting the tone for the political dialogue after four years of partisan division and congressional dysfunction.
In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida signaled little acceptance of what Obama proposed, repeating longstanding GOP criticism of what he described as job-killing, growth-snuffing bigger government.
"Presidents in both parties -- from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan -- have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle-class prosperity," said Rubio, a tea party favorite considered the a rising star in the Republican Party. "But President Obama? He believes it's the cause of our problems."
According to Rubio, the president's solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."
With both sides sticking to deeply entrenched positions, the night of competing messages signaled continued partisan division and political showdowns in Washington over the federal budget and further steps to reduce the deficit and national debt.
"In many ways, what we heard tonight is the same old, same old argument," noted CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CNN that Rubio helped himself as a Republican leader, while Janet Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, accused the Florida senator of missing an opportunity to appeal to the political center because he overstated GOP talking points.
To CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, Rubio emerged as an attractive figure on the American political stage but was short on specifics.
"I don't think they won the arguments tonight," Gergen said of Republicans.
The government faces deep spending cuts mandated by a previous agreement between Obama and Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling, and Obama renewed his call on Tuesday night for a comprehensive deficit-reduction plan that includes new tax revenue coupled with spending cuts.
Taking aim at the bitter partisanship of his first term, Obama said "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," he continued to applause, mainly from Democrats. "The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. We can't do it. Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, and pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America."
In a jab at congressional Republicans who seek to shrink deficits and the size of government through deep spending cuts, saying "deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan."
Rubio's response blamed Obama for weakening U.S. stability and potential by continued deficit spending and failing to take on needed reforms to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
"The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending $1 trillion more than it takes in every year. That's why we need a balanced budget amendment," he said, accusing Obama of wanting to leave Medicare unchanged so that it goes bankrupt.
However, Obama called for "modest" reforms to Medicare in his speech, repeating proposals already raised in previous deficit-reduction negotiations that Republicans consider insufficient.