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 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, touting the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan this year and reiterating his threat to veto any new sanctions Congress might levy on Iran while nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic are underway.
“Simply put, the government needs to empower Americans and their employers by getting out of their way. That's how our nation has overcome enormous challenges in the past and it's how we will in the future.
“Our focus should be on lowering taxes, decreasing burdensome government regulations, promoting trade and reducing our nation's debt. This can only be achieved by working together. Advancing a personal agenda through executive fiat ignores the will of the American people, who elect Members of Congress to represent their ideals through the legislative process. If the President reaches across the aisle and works with us instead of going it alone, we can leave future generations a stronger union."
Rep. Lee Terry (R) NE.
“The state of our Union cannot be strengthened with more spending, more taxation, and more regulation like what the President proposed. It can be strengthened through the resolve of leadership and by working together, but the President made abundantly clear tonight that he’d rather govern like a King rather than through the constitutional framework created by our founders.
“What the President didn’t say tonight is that dysfunctional Washington Democrats have become the party of no. The House has passed dozens of bills designed to lift America out of chronic unemployment. But Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid have said no to creating jobs, no to reigning in out-of-control Washington spending, no rolling back the President’s failed health care plan, and no to reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil.
“To strengthen our Union, we must have trust in the Executive Branch. We must be able to trust that the President will work with Congress and not govern by fiat. Unfortunately, what I heard tonight was more of the same failed rhetoric from a President who believes he knows best on how to grow our economy despite the ingenuity of hard working Nebraskans.”
Rep. Adrian Smith (R) NE.
“Tonight’s speech was an opportunity for President Obama to change course and begin working with members of both parties on an agenda to put America on a better path,” said Smith. “I am disappointed the President continues to stand by the same tired, government-heavy policies, such as his disastrous health care law, which clearly are failing the American people.
“I am particularly concerned by the President’s plans to bypass Congress through executive actions and new regulations. In a divided government, no one can expect to get everything they want. The President should respect, rather than undermine, the checks and balances established by the founders of our nation in the Constitution.”
Senator Chuck Grassley (R) IA.
“The Constitution created three branches of the federal government and checks and balances among the branches that are fundamental to our strength as a nation. Based on that, the President should use his pen and phone to build coalitions on Capitol Hill and sign legislation into law, not issue executive orders that Congress and the American people don’t support.
“The President spoke about inequality. Congress and the President should find common ground and create economic growth that builds people up. We ought to reform the tax code to close loopholes and give job creators the certainty and confidence to expand, hire and raise wages. We can’t tax and spend our way to prosperity through government.
“The President should work with Congress to renew Trade Promotion Authority so we have more places around the world to export what we make and grow in Iowa and other states.
“The President should promote energy independence and new jobs by approving the Keystone Pipeline and faithfully executing the 2007 federal law that created the Renewable Fuel Standard.
“Together, we should strengthen the patent system to clear the way for entrepreneurs and inventors to create, innovate and grow minus the patent trolls who abuse the system with frivolous lawsuits.
“Washington should first try to get the most bang for the buck out of existing programs before rushing to create more. For example, too many housing dollars go to executives and bureaucrats instead of people in need. The IRS whistleblower office is limping along, when it could be helping to collect billions of tax dollars that are already due.
The Justice Department could criminally prosecute Wall Street executives who defraud consumers instead of settling for pennies on the dollar. The IRS could make public disclosures from colleges and other major tax-exempt groups more readily available or maybe even require more disclosure in exchange for their tax exemption so executive perks and other spending that contributes to college costs receives scrutiny.
“If the President is willing to work with Congress, there are a number of areas where we can work together to create economic growth and get more from the taxpayer dollars already in the U.S. treasury.”
Senator Tom Harkin (D) IA.
“Tonight the president outlined an agenda inspired by the values that make our country great, including the promise that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will have the opportunity to get ahead.
His proposals will resonate with working and middle class families in Iowa and across the country: increasing access to early education and quality, affordable health care; as well as new efforts to make college more affordable and to promote fair wages and retirement security in our country.
“I applaud President Obama’s bold plan to ensure that the federal government plays a strong role in promoting good jobs that pay fair wages. I think most Americans would agree that taxpayer dollars should not support companies that pay poverty wages.
His Executive Order is a strong step in the right direction. But as I’m sure the President would agree, this is only a first step. Low-wage workers perform some of the most difficult and important jobs in our society. They should not have to live in poverty, regardless of whether they are employed by a federal contractor or elsewhere in the private sector. It is vitally important for Congress to pass my bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and to provide for automatic future increases so that minimum wage workers don’t fall behind again.
“I was encouraged to hear the President expand on his comments in last year’s address when he emphasized the importance of early learning. Modern science teaches us that learning begins at birth, and the preparation for learning begins before birth. The investment we make as a nation in early learning will pay dividends for generations to come.
Not only did the President address the benefits of investing in early learning, but also the realization that we must take action against the increasing cost of college and the burden of student loan debt, which are putting the promise of higher education out of reach for far too many students. I look forward to working with him on both initiatives.
“We know that creating opportunity means access to quality, affordable health care. The more that Iowans and other Americans learn of the benefits and protections in the Affordable Care Act, the more they like it. Approximately three million people have now enrolled in a private health insurance plan since October 1. Millions more are enjoying historic benefits and protections.
“I also commend the President for recognizing that we are facing a retirement crisis. The President is doing everything he can to make the system work better for middle class families, but he has limited tools. That's why, on Thursday, I will introduce comprehensive legislation that tackles the retirement crisis head-on by ensuring that every working person has the opportunity to earn a safe, portable, and secure pension. The retirement crisis is too big to ignore, and it's time for Congress to tackle the issue by rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.
“The agenda outlined this evening will strengthen the ‘ladder of opportunity,’ putting the American Dream in reach for all Americans.”