Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers,
Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his
independence from Congress by unveiling a series of executive orders
and decisions — moves likely to inflame already tense relations
between the Democratic president and Republicans.
While his rhetoric was high flying, Obama's actions were relatively
modest, collectively amounting to an outpouring of frustration at
the pace of legislative action with Republicans in control of the
House of Representatives and able to slow the president's agenda.
"I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama told the lawmakers
gathered for the annual speech. "But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps
without legislation to expand opportunity for more American
families, that's what I'm going to do."
Obama's orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers,
creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people
save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency
standards for trucks.
He said he was driven to act by the widening gap between rich and
poor and the fact that while the stock market has soared, average
wages have barely budged.
"Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "Upward mobility has stalled.
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. And too many still aren't working at all."
SALUTE TO WOUNDED SOLDIER
In an emotional, flag-waving finish to his speech, Obama drew a
standing ovation from people of all political stripes by saluting
the heroism of Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. The Army Ranger
survived a roadside blast in Afghanistan and has recovered to the
point where he attended the speech, seated next to first lady
"Like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg
never gives up, and he does not quit," Obama said.
In a nod to bipartisanship, Obama drew applause with a brief tribute
to John Boehner, "the son of a barkeeper" who rose to become speaker
of the House of Representatives and the top Republican in Congress.
Boehner gave Obama a thumbs-up.
Obama's political objective in the address was to create a narrative
for Democrats to use as they seek to head off Republicans eager to
wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November elections and
build on their majority in the House.
The party in control of the White House typically loses seats in
these so-called mid-term elections, but Democrats feel they stand a
chance of limiting their losses or even making some gains.
To that end, Obama drew loud applause by underscoring in particular
the economic plight of women, who he noted make up about half the
U.S. workforce but still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Women voters helped re-elect Obama in 2012.
"This year, let's all come together — Congress, the White House and
businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the
opportunity she deserves, because I firmly believe when women
succeed, America succeeds," he said.
Obama's governing strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for
large legislative actions and wants to focus more on smaller-scale
initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more
opportunities for middle-class workers.
The wage hike for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour, for
example, will mean a pay raise for only about 560,000 federal
That's only a tiny fraction of the number who would see bigger
paychecks under stalled legislation to increase the minimum wage.
Some 3.6 million workers were paid the federal minimum wage in 2012.
Obama spent a sizable part of his speech hammering away at issues
that have long been debated but remain stalled, like closing the
U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He renewed an appeal for Congress to give him the authority to
speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal held
up by Democratic opposition.
And on one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama
urged Congress to work together on an overhaul. He tempered his
criticism of Republicans who have held up the legislation, with
signs of possible progress emerging in recent days among House
Obama stopped short of taking a step that immigration reform
advocates have called on him to take. He did not take executive
action to freeze the deportations of parents of children brought to
the United States illegally.
"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.
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"REFIGHTING OLD BATTLES"
On healthcare, the issue that rocked his presidency and caused many
Americans to lose confidence in him, Obama defended the overhaul law
he signed in 2010 but did not make it a centerpiece, urging
Americans to sign up for medical insurance coverage by a March 31
He challenged Republicans to come up with a viable alternative
instead of repeating past failed attempts to repeal the law.
"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits
of this law. But I know that the American people aren't interested
in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to
cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice — tell America
what you'd do differently," he said.
Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, found Obama's speech
overall to be rather restrained compared to the usual partisan
rhetoric in Washington.
"His language was mostly devoid of overt partisan provocation. On
policy, he gave little ground to the Republicans, but he did little
to confront them either," said Galston, who had worked for
Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Obama said nothing about whether he would approve the long-delayed
Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that environmentalists
Instead, Obama spoke passionately about the need to tackle climate
change, a statement that could foreshadow more executive actions to
reduce carbon emissions this year.
Obama said, "The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen
overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way. But
the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."
Republicans clambered for some of the same rhetorical ground as
Obama in pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor but staked
out a different vision for doing so.
U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House
Republican Caucus, said in her party's official response to Obama's
speech that Republicans want to rely on free markets and trust
people to make their own decisions, not have the government make
decisions for them.
"The president talks a lot about income inequality, but the real gap
we face today is one of opportunity inequality," she said,
videotaped seated on a couch in a living room setting.
With three years left in office, Obama is trying to recover from a
difficult past year in office, when immigration and gun control
legislation failed to advance in Congress and the rollout of the key
provisions of his healthcare law stumbled.
Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC News/Wall
Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of
Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since
Obama took office. People used words like "divided," "troubled" and
"deteriorating" to describe the state of the country, the poll
Obama dwelled mostly on domestic issues in his hourlong address,
but warned Congress he would veto any effort to increase economic
sanctions on Iran as he tries to reach a comprehensive deal with
Tehran to ensure it does not obtain a nuclear weapons capability.
A CNN poll found that 44 percent of respondents viewed Obama's
address very positively while 32 percent felt somewhat positively
about it and 22 percent were negative toward it.
Obama will talk up the economic themes from the speech in a two-day
road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland,
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan
Cornwell, Mark Felsenthal, Margaret Chadbourn, Alina Selyukh, Emily
Stephenson and Valerie Volcovici; editing by Will Dunham and Jim Loney)
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