WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/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.
As CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, President Obama is struggling with some of his lowest ever approval ratings and a deeply divided Congress.
His message to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday identified places where he and Congress can cooperate. But it also pressed issues that will distinguish him and Democrats from Republicans. And he made a case for acting alone on some issues.
He told the American People with gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else is growing and must be turned around.
“Inequality has deepened,” he said. “Upward mobility has stalled.”
While noting that some of his initiatives to reduce inequality and improve growth require Congressional approval, he said he would work by himself where he could do so.
“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 said.
After a year in which many of Obama’s proposals languished and gun control failed, the White House was eager to avoid letting Obama be defined by quixotic ambitions. That was the reason for his stress on plans for success through executive actions, though their reach would be far more modest than what he could achieve through legislation.
Thus, illustrating his willingness to act on his own, Obama announced that he will sign an executive order increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for new federal contracts.
“In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” he said.
The measure affects only future contracts, not existing ones, and would only apply to contract renewals if other terms of the agreement changed.
His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of “Do it!” from many members of his party.
But the idea of an executive order did not meet with enthusiasm from some lawmakers.
“I would support an increase in the minimum wage if it also involves lifting regulations on small business,” Rep. Peter King, R-Long Island, told CBS 2’s Dick Brennan. “I think the president is making a big mistake by trying to really grandstand, by doing by executive order what he feels he can’t get through Congress.”
Obama also renewed his call for Congress to increase the national minimum wage to $10.10 and tie future increases to inflation.
In the beginning of the speech Tuesday, Obama said the economy has seen a trend of improvement.
Obama said the nation is seeing “the lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years. Our deficits – cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.”
But Obama also said Washington is plagued with rancor that has hindered progress.
“For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding,” Obama said. “But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”
Obama later called specifically for improving access to jobs. He urged Democrats and Republicans to work together to close tax loopholes, as well as lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs in the U.S. He called further for creating jobs geared toward efforts to improve infrastructure – and said he would act alone for part of it.
“We’ll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer,” he said. “But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”
Obama also called for the creation of more high-tech manufacturing jobs, recommitting to American energy, and fighting climate change.
“The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” the president said.
Claiming that independent economists say immigration reform will grow the economy and cut deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades, Obama also urged “let’s get immigration reform done this year.”
Opening a new front with Congress, the president also 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 U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), 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.
Obama emphasized further in the address that he believes voting rights must be protected.
“It should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank account, that drives our democracy,” the president said.
Obama added that doesn’t expect Republicans to agree with his health care law, but he’s urging his political opponents to give up their repeated attempts to do away with it.
Obama said more than 40 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act were plenty. He told members of Congress, quote, “We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
Obama also announced executive actions on job training, retirement security and help for the long-term unemployed in finding work, all in addition to the minimum wage order for federal contracts.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) gave the official republican rebuttal, saying the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder. She argued that opportunity inequality, not income inequality, was the real crisis.
“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,” she said.
In addition to Rodgers’ official GOP response, there was also a Tea Party response from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and one from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), exposing a split in the party.
“Nobody wants to hear, certainly I don’t want to hear, what Rand Paul has to say. If he wants to do it on another night, but don’t be interfering with the Republican message,” Rep. King said.
But despite the division, Obama’s go-it-alone approach has irritated many Republicans across the board, some of whom claim he is pushing the limits of the Constitution; others diminish his initiatives as insubstantial.
“It’s hard to convince people to get legislation through, it takes consensus,” Sen. Paul said. “But that’s what he needs to be doing, is building consensus and not taking his pen and creating law.”
The approach, some Republicans say, could also backfire by angering GOP leaders who already don’t trust Obama’s administration.
“At this point we have seen just about everything in the president’s tool box. We have had a years-long clinic on the failures of liberalism,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
“The more he tries to do it alone and do confrontation, the less he’s going to be able to get cooperation,” said John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide.
Obama followed his State of the Union address with a quick trip Wednesday and Thursday to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee to promote his proposals.
On Friday, Obama will hold an event at the White House where he’ll announce commitments from several companies to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring.
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