Obama vows to flex presidential powers in speech

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applaud.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applaud. Photo by The Associated Press.

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Obama: 'Let's Make This a Year of Action'

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 2104 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.

Access the text of the speech here.

Earlier coverage, posted at 6:09 p.m.:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring that upward economic mobility has stalled for millions of Americans, President Barack Obama is challenging a deeply divided Congress to restore the nation's belief in "opportunity for all" — while telling lawmakers he will act on his own "wherever and whenever" he can.

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President Barack Obama walks along the Colonnade at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, hours before giving his State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress.

"America does not stand still and neither will I," Obama was saying in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Excerpts of his remarks were released in advance.

The president's address, delivered before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television, marks the opening salvo in a midterm election fight that will quickly consume Washington. Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as protectors of the rich, have pressed Obama to focus more on issues of economic fairness and shrinking the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

The initiatives Obama planned to unveil Tuesday night were tailored to fit those themes. He was to announce executive action to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts, help the long-term unemployed find work and expand job-training programs. He also planned to renew his calls for Congress to expand the minimum wage increase to all workers, pass a sweeping immigration overhaul and increase access to early childhood education programs — all initiatives that stalled after Obama first announced them in last year's State of the Union address.

While unemployment is falling and financial markets are soaring, Obama acknowledged that many Americans have yet to see effects of any broader economic recovery.

"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 says. "And too many still aren't working at all."

Obama's go-it-alone strategy, with modest steps for now, is aimed both at jumpstarting his stagnant second term and prodding a divided Congress to take additional action to boost economic opportunity for millions of Americans. But there's little indication lawmakers are ready to follow along, particularly as the nation barrels toward the midterm elections.

Keenly aware of Congress' slim record of recent accomplishments, White House officials see a robust rollout of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Obama still wields power as the clock ticks on his presidency.

Yet much of what the president can do on his own is limited, as evidenced by the minimum wage proposal officials previewed ahead of Tuesday's prime-time address. The executive order will increase the minimum hourly payment for new federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10. But because the measure affects only future contracts, its immediate impact will be minimal.

"The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help?" said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."

The White House says the wage hike would most benefit janitors and construction laborers working under new federal contracts, as well as military base workers who wash dishes, serve food and do laundry. But officials did not say how many people would fall into those categories.

Obama will seek to build on the executive order by renewing his call for Congress to pass a minimum wage increase for all American workers, a proposal that gained little traction after he first announced it in last year's State of the Union address. But White House officials feel somewhat optimistic that they could get backing this year given that some Republican lawmakers have also indicated an interest in working on income inequality and economic mobility issues.

Washington's current focus on inequality comes as many parts of the economy are gaining strength. But the soaring financial markets and corporate balance sheets stand in contrast to the millions of people still out of work or struggling with stagnant incomes that don't stretch as far as they used to.

Seeking to address those issues, Obama will also announce executive actions on job training, boosting employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed and expanding retirement savings for low- and middle-income Americans.

The retirement savings proposal is geared toward workers whose employers don't currently offer such plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs, according to two people who have discussed the proposal with the administration. Those people weren't authorized to discuss the plan ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.

Obama will also tout an initiative to secure commitments from big corporations not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring. Representatives from major companies will join the president at the White House on Friday to promote the effort.

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.

"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.

The president will still try to score a few legislative victories this year, namely an overhaul of the nation's broken immigration laws. The Senate passed landmark legislation last summer, but the effort stalled in the Republican-led House. Conservatives are pushing back against the president's call to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. And some Democrats would prefer to use the unresolved issue to mobilize Hispanic voters for this year's elections.

Obama will follow his State of the Union address with a quick trip Wednesday and Thursday to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee to promote his proposals.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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