Obama greets members of Congress as he arrives in the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Looking to jump-start his second term and give his party the advantage ahead of the November midterm elections, President Barack Obama pledged to do everything he can, with or without Congress, to reduce income inequality and bolster the middle class.
“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said in his State of the Union address.
“Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I,” Obama said. “Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Obama announced that he would sign an executive order that would raise the minimum wage for new federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, alongside a push to raise the minimum wage for everyone else that was cheered by congressional Democrats but opposed by many Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
While stating he was unafraid to go it alone, Obama also tried to strike an upbeat note praising past bipartisan accomplishments, including the two-year budget deal, even as he chided Congress for shutting down the government and risking a debt default.
Areas where he believes Democrats and Republicans can work together include the farm bill, overhauling immigration laws, restoring expired unemployment insurance, an overhaul of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a patent overhaul and trade promotion authority — but there were no grand new legislative proposals.
Alongside that mostly recycled legislative agenda, Obama laid out a host of executive initiatives in the works — including a new starter retirement account, new regulations aimed at slowing climate change and improving energy efficiency, broadband wiring for schools and an overhaul of job training programs.
According to senior administration officials, Obama’s plan to use more executive actions is not designed as a challenge or threat to Congress to spur it to act, but is more about the president using every avenue at his disposal.
But Republicans said Tuesday they intended to carefully inspect the executive actions to see if Obama is overreaching — and they were predictably unimpressed.
“After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas,” Boehner said in a statement responding to the speech. “With few bipartisan proposals, Americans heard a president more interested in advancing ideology than in solving the problems regular folks are talking about.”
Writing for Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz blasted what he called “an imperial presidency.”
“The president’s taste for unilateral action to circumvent Congress should concern every citizen, regardless of party or ideology,” Cruz wrote.
Alongside the proposed agenda, the president, not surprisingly, praised his signature health care law.
“If you want to know the real impact this law is having, just talk to Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, who’s here tonight. Kentucky’s not the most liberal part of the country, but he’s like a man possessed when it comes to covering his commonwealth’s families,” Obama said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referred to Beshear’s appearance by name earlier Tuesday.
“President Obama and Gov. Beshear can keep telling Americans to ‘get over it’ if they don’t like this law, but sooner or later they’re going to have to come to terms with reality,” McConnell said.
Obama asked Americans to help others sign up for the new health care exchanges.
“Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application. It will give her some peace of mind — plus, she’ll appreciate hearing from you,” Obama said.
His comments come after the GOP has pounded Obama and Democrats over the troubled rollout of the health care law, which resulted in some people losing their insurance due to cancellation of non-compliant plans and difficulty in signing up for insurance on HealthCare.gov.
But Obama stayed on offense, pointing to 9 million people who have signed up for private insurance or Medicaid so far.
Obama avoided real surprises, though. He didn’t mention the Keystone XL oil pipeline, for instance.
While largely focusing on a call for action on domestic policy, Obama also delivered a warning shot to Congress, making clear again that he would veto an expansion of the sanctions regime against Iran while talks continue.
“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” Obama said.
It was the only veto threat of the speech.
Even before the speech, supporters of the expanded sanctions measure dismissed the administration’s view.
“None of us can quite understand why the threat of renewed sanctions, if it fails after six months, would in any way be harmful unless the Iranians want to drag out and drag out and drag out these conversations until the point where they are ready,” Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain told CNN.
Obama made a passing reference to the National Security Agency, promising changes.
“I will reform our surveillance programs — because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated,” he said.
Elsewhere on the national security front, Obama repeated the familiar refrain calling for the shuttering of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, asking Congress to ease the restrictions regularly imposed in spending legislation on prisoner transfers. The latest plea to close Guantánamo comes with the war in Afghanistan on the wind-down. Some troops could stay in the country past 2014 in a support role.
“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida,” Obama said. “For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.