WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address to sidestep Congress “whenever and wherever” necessary to narrow economic disparities between rich and poor. He unveiled an array of modest executive actions to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers and make it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.
“America does not stand still and neither do I,” Obama declared in his prime-time address before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television.
Draped in presidential grandeur, Obama’s hour-long address served as the opening salvo in a midterm election fight for control of Congress that will quickly consume Washington’s attention.
Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Obama to focus on economic mobility and the gap between the wealthy and poor. His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of “Do it!” from many members of his party.
Declaring 2014 a “year of action,” Obama also sought to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he still wields power in Washington even if he can’t crack through the divisions in Congress. Burned by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they’re now redefining success not by what Obama can jam through Congress but by what actions he can take on his own.
Indeed, Obama’s proposals for action by lawmakers were slim and largely focused on old ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul, pass an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education — all ideas that gained little traction after he proposed them last year. The president’s one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.
Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings fall further in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening gap between rich and poor as a symptom of Obama’s economic policies.
“Republicans have plans to close the gap, plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts and red tape,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in the Republicans’ televised response to the president’s speech.
The economy and other domestic issues, including health care, dominated the president’s address. He touched only briefly on foreign policy, reiterating his threat to veto any new sanctions Congress might levy on Iran while nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic are underway and touting the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan this year.
In an emotional high point, Obama singled out Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was a guest of first lady Michelle Obama. Remsburg, who was nearly killed in Afghanistan during one of his 10 deployments, rose slowly from his seat and was greeted by long and thunderous applause from the president and lawmakers.
Even as Washington increasingly focuses on income inequality, many parts of the economy are gaining strength, with corporate profits soaring and the financial markets hitting record highs. But with millions of Americans still out of work or struggling with stagnant wages, Obama has found himself in the sometimes awkward position of promoting a recovery that feels distant for many.
“The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead,” Obama said. “And too many still aren’t working at all.”
The president garnered some of his loudest applause — at least from Democrats — when he took on lawmakers who oppose his signature health care law, which floundered in its initial rollout last fall. Obama said that while he doesn’t expect to convince Republicans on the merits of the law, “I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.”
The president’s speech drew an eclectic mix of visitors to the House chamber. Among those sitting with Mrs. Obama were two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player. Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought business owners from his home state of Ohio who say Obama’s health care overhaul is hurting their companies. Willie Robertson, a star of the television show “Duck Dynasty,” also scored a seat in the House gallery, courtesy of the Republicans.
Though Obama sought to emphasize his presidential powers, there are stark limits to what he can do on his own. For example, he unilaterally can raise the minimum hourly wage for new federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, as he announced, but he’ll need Congress in order to extend that increase to all of America’s workers.
The executive order for contractors, which Obama will sign in the coming weeks, is limited in its scope. It will not affect existing federal contracts, only new ones, and then only if other terms of an agreement change.
Republicans quickly panned the executive initiative as ineffective. Said Boehner: “The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”
White House officials countered by saying many more working people would benefit if Congress would go along with Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage across the board.
“Give America a raise,” Obama declared.
Among the president’s other executive initiatives is a plan to help workers whose employers don’t offer retirement savings plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs. Obama is expected to promote the “starter” accounts during a trip to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
The president also announced new commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed, the creation of four “manufacturing hubs” where universities and businesses would work together to develop and train workers, new incentives to encourage truckers to switch from dirtier fuels to natural gas or other alternatives and a proposed tax credit to promote the adoption of cars that can run on cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, natural gas or biofuels.
The president’s go-it-alone strategy is in many ways an acknowledgment that he has failed to make good on two major promises to the American people: that he would change Washington’s hyper-partisanship and that his re-election would break the Republican “fever” and clear the way for congressional action on major initiatives.
Some Republicans have warned that the president’s focus on executive orders could backfire by angering GOP leaders who already don’t trust the White House.
Obama isn’t abandoning Congress completely. He made a renewed pitch for legislation to overhaul the nation’s fractured immigration laws, perhaps his best opportunity for signing significant legislation this year. But the odds remain long, with many Republicans staunchly opposed to Obama’s plan for creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.
Seeking to give the GOP some room to maneuver, Obama did not specifically call for a citizenship pathway Tuesday, saying only, “Let’s get it done. It’s time.”
Opening a new front with Congress, the president called for an extension of the earned-income tax credit, which helps boost the wages of low-income families through tax refunds. Obama wants it broadened so that it provides more help than it does now to workers without children, a view embraced by some Republicans and conservative economists.
Obama singled out Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has proposed replacing the tax credit with a federal wage supplement for workers in certain low-paying jobs. Unlike Obama, however, Republicans have suggested expanding the tax credit as an alternative to increasing the minimum wage.
Pivoting briefly to foreign policy, Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.
The president also warned lawmakers in both parties against passing new economic sanctions against Iran while the U.S. and international partners are holding nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic. He renewed his commitment to veto sanctions legislation if it passes, arguing that a new round of penalties would upend the sensitive diplomacy.
Text of the Republican response to the State of the Union address, as prepared for delivery by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and provided by the Office of the Speaker of the House:
What an honor it is for me to be with you after the president’s State of the Union.
Tonight we honor America – a nation that has witnessed the greatest rise of freedom and opportunity our world has ever seen. A nation where we are not defined by our limits, but by our potential.
And a nation where a girl who worked at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru to help pay for college can be with you from the United States Capitol.
But the most important moments right now aren’t happening here. They’re not in the Oval Office or in the House Chamber. They’re in your homes.
Kissing your kids goodnight, figuring out how to pay the bills, getting ready for tomorrow’s doctor’s visit, waiting to hear from those you love serving in Afghanistan, or searching for that big job interview.
After all, `We the People’ have been the foundation of America since her earliest days – people from all walks of life, and from all corners of the world – people who come to America because here, no challenge is too great and no dream too big. That’s the genius of America.
Tonight the president made more promises that sound good, but won’t solve the problems actually facing Americans. We want you to have a better life. The president wants that, too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen.
So tonight I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision, one that empowers you, not the government. It’s one that champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you. It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable. And it’s one where Washington plays by the same rules that you do. It’s a vision that is fair and offers the promise of a better future for every American.
If you had told me as a little girl that one day I would put my hand on the Bible and be sworn in as the 200th woman to serve in the House of Representatives, I never would’ve thought it possible. I grew up working at my family’s orchard and fruit stand in Kettle Falls, a small town in Eastern Washington — getting up before dawn with my brother to pick apples. My dad drove a school bus and my mom worked as a part-time bookkeeper. They taught me to work hard, help others, and always, always dream for more.
So, when I showed my 4H animals at the county fair, my parents used to say to me, “Cathy, you need to save this money so you can go to college one day!” So I did – I saved, I worked hard, and I became the first in my family to graduate from college. The chance to go from my Washington to this one was unexpected.
I came to Congress to help empower people, not politicians; to grow the working middle class, not the government; and to ensure that everyone in this country can find a job. Because a job is so much more than just a paycheck. It gives us purpose, dignity and the foundation to build a future.
I was single when I was elected – but it wasn’t long before I met Brian, a retired Navy commander, and now we have three beautiful children, one who was born just eight weeks ago. Like all parents, we have high hopes and dreams for our children, but we also know what it’s like to face challenges.
Three days after we gave birth to our son, Cole, we got news no parent expects. Cole was diagnosed with Down syndrome. The doctors told us he could have endless complications, heart defects, even early Alzheimer’s. They told us all the problems. But when we looked at our son, we saw only possibilities. We saw a gift from God.
Today we see a 6-year old boy who dances to Bruce Springsteen; who reads above grade level; and who is the best big brother in the world. We see all the things he can do, not those he can’t.
Cole, and his sisters, Grace and Brynn, have only made me more determined to see the potential in every human life – that whether we are born with an extra 21st chromosome or without a dollar to our name – we are not defined by our limits, but by our potential. Because our mission, not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become.
That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It’s the gap we all face: between where you are and where you want to be. The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality. And with this administration’s policies, that gap has become far too wide.
We see this gap growing every single day. We see it in our neighbors who are struggling to find jobs. A husband who’s now working just part-time. A child who drops out of college because she can’t afford tuition. Or parents who are outliving their life’s savings.
Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.
Republicans have plans to close the gap, plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape. Every day, we’re working to expand our economy, one manufacturing job, nursing degree and small business at a time. We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school, so college is affordable, and skills training is modernized.
And yes, it’s time to honor our history of legal immigration. We’re working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world.
And with too many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, we have solutions to help you take home more of your pay – through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs, and affordable health care.
Not long ago I got a letter from Bette in Spokane, who hoped the president’s health care law would save her money – but found out instead that her premiums were going up nearly $700 a month.
No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s. And that whether you’re a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you.
So we hope the president will join us in a year of real action – by empowering people – not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes and fewer jobs. As Republicans, we advance these plans every day because we believe in a government that trusts people and doesn’t limit where you finish because of where you started.
That is what we stand for – for an America that is every bit as compassionate as it is exceptional. If we’re successful, years from now our children will say that we rebuilt the American Dream. We built a working middle class that could take in anyone, and a workforce that could take on the world. Whether you’re a girl in Kettle Falls or a boy from Brooklyn, our children should be able to say that we closed the gap. Our plan is one that dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one.
The president said many things tonight. But now, we ask him to listen – to you – for the true state of the union lies in your heart and in your home.
Tomorrow, I’ll watch my son Cole get on the school bus; others will wait in the doctor’s office or interview for that first job. Some of us will celebrate new beginnings. Others will face great challenges. But all of us will wake up and do what is uniquely American.
We will look forward to the boundless potential that lies ahead. We will give thanks to the brave men and women who have answered America’s call to freedom, like Sgt. Jacob Hess from Spokane, who recently gave his life to protect all of ours.
So, tonight, I simply offer a prayer. A prayer for Sgt. Hess’s family, your family and for our larger American family. That, with the guidance of God, we may prove worthy of His blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For when we embrace these gifts, we are each doing our part to form a more perfect union.
May God guide you and our president, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.