WASHINGTON » After five years of fractious political combat, President Barack Obama declared independence from Congress on Tuesday as he vowed to tackle economic disparity with a series of limited initiatives on jobs, wages and retirement that he will enact without legislative approval.
Promising "a year of action" as he tries to rejuvenate a presidency mired in low approval ratings and stymied by partisan stalemates, Obama used his annual State of the Union address to chart a new path forward relying on his own executive authority. But the defiant go-it-alone approach was more assertive than any of the individual policies he advanced.
"I’m eager to work with all of you," a confident Obama told lawmakers of both parties in the nationally televised speech in the House chamber. "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."
The president’s appearance at the Capitol, with all the traditional pomp and anticipation punctuated by partisan jockeying, came at a critical juncture for Obama as he seeks to define his remaining time in office. He touched on foreign policy, asserting that "American diplomacy backed by the threat of force" had forced Syria to give up chemical weapons and that "American diplomacy backed by pressure" had brought Iran to the negotiating table. And he repeated his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan this year and threatened again to veto sanctions on Iran that disrupt his diplomatic efforts.
But Obama’s message centered on the wide gap between the wealthiest and the rest of Americans as he positioned himself as a champion of those left behind in the modern economy. "Those at the top have never done better," he said. "But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. 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 to get ahead," he added. "And too many still aren’t working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends."
To do so, the president announced an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contract workers and the creation of a new Treasury bond for workers without access to traditional retirement options. He proposed incentives for trucks running on alternative fuels and higher efficiency standards for those running on gasoline. And he announced a meeting on working families and a review of federal job training programs.
The most emotional point of the evening came with the introduction of Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger the president had met both before and after he was ravaged by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. As Remsburg, blind in one eye and still learning how to walk again, made it to his feet in the first lady’s box, lawmakers of both parties gave him an extended ovation.
In his address, Obama was gambling that a series of ideas that seem small-bore on their own will add up to a larger collective vision of an America with expanded opportunity. But the moderate ambitions were a stark contrast to past years when Obama proposed sweeping legislation to remake the nation’s health care system, regulate Wall Street, curb climate change and restrict access to high-powered firearms.
Republicans responded by blaming Obama for the country’s economic problems, but the party’s leaders avoided the language of last year’s government shutdown and hoped to present what Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington called "a more hopeful, Republican vision" intended to appeal particularly to women in a midterm election year.
In her party’s official response, Rodgers offered a folksy, personal presentation, describing in moving terms her 6-year-old son, Cole, who was born with Down syndrome, even as she assailed Obama’s health care program, spending record and regulations. "Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder," she said. "Republicans have plans to close the gap."
But in a sign of the continued divisions within the Republican Party, some of its leaders offered separate responses. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah delivered a speech on behalf of tea party activists, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky distributed his own remarks on Facebook, YouTube and other social media.
Lee echoed his party message by criticizing Obama’s policies, declaring that "Obamacare, all by itself, is an inequality Godzilla." But he also noted, "My own party has been part of the problem, too often joining the Democrats to rig our economy to benefit the well connected at the expense of the disconnected."
Despite his vow to move ahead without Capitol Hill, Obama said he was not giving up on Congress altogether and recycled calls for many past legislative priorities. "Let’s see where else we can make progress together," he said.
President Barack Obama promised an executive order to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $10.10. He called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers to $10.10.
Obama asked the Treasury to create a bond called MyRA that can be offered through employers as a "starter" retirement account.
Renewed call for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration overhaul this year, including a path to citizenship for about 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
CLIMATE AND ENERGY
Urged Congress to end tax benefits for the oil industry and use revenues to invest in advanced vehicles that use cleaner fuels.
Called on Congress to overhaul the tax code to eliminate wasteful loopholes while lowering rates for businesses to encourage hiring in the U.S.
Directed Vice President Joe Biden to lead review of federal job-training programs. Will partner with leading U.S. companies to help long-term unemployed.
Will work to finalize security agreement with Afghanistan so small force can remain to train Afghan forces and pursue al-Qaida.
Limit use of drones in foreign countries. Overhaul U.S. surveillance programs to restore public confidence. Renew call for Congress to lift transfer restrictions so Guantanamo Bay prison can be closed.
Political claims can take shortcuts with the facts or don’t tell the full story.
Here is a look at President Obama’s State of the Union speech and the GOP response:
OBAMA: “Because of this (health care) law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a pre-existing condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more just because she’s a woman. And we did all this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.”
THE FACTS: He’s right that insurers can no longer turn people down because of medical problems, and they can’t charge higher premiums to women because of their sex. The law also lowered costs for seniors with high prescription drug bills. But Obama’s health care law also raised Medicare premiums for upper-income beneficiaries, and both the president and Republicans have proposed to expand that.
Finally, the degree to which the health care law improved Medicare finances is hotly debated. On paper the program’s giant trust fund for inpatient care gained more than a decade of solvency because of cuts to service providers required under the health law. But in practice those savings cannot simultaneously be used to expand coverage for the uninsured and shore up Medicare.
OBAMA: “Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”
THE FACTS: The most recent evidence suggests that mobility hasn’t worsened. A team of economists led by Harvard’s Raj Chetty released a study last week that found the United States isn’t any less socially mobile than it was in the 1970s. Looking at children born between 1971 and 1993, the economists found that the odds of a child born in the poorest 20 percent of families making it into the top 20 percent hasn’t changed.
Still, other research has found that the United States isn’t as mobile a society as most Americans would like to believe. In a study of 22 countries, economist Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa found that the United States ranked 15th in social mobility. Only Italy and Britain among wealthy countries ranked lower.
OBAMA: “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.”
THE FACTS: This would be a hefty boost in the federal minimum wage, now $7.25, but not many would see it.
Most employees of federal contractors already earn more than $10.10. About 10 percent of those workers, roughly 200,000, might be covered by the higher minimum wage. But there are several wrinkles. The increase would not take effect until 2015 at the earliest, and it doesn’t apply to existing federal contracts, only new ones. Renewed contracts also will be exempt from Obama’s order unless other terms of the agreement change.
Obama also said he’ll press Congress to raise the federal minimum wage overall. He tried that last year, seeking a $9 minimum, but Congress didn’t act.
The GOP RESPONSE
REP. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS of Washington, in her prepared Republican response: “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”
THE FACTS: She leaves out a significant factor in the high number of people who aren’t looking for jobs: Baby boomers are retiring.
It’s true that a large part of the still-high unemployment rate is due to jobless workers who have given up looking for a job. There are roughly three people seeking every job opening, a circumstance that can discourage others from trying. But one big reason people aren’t seeking employment is that there are so many boomers — the generation born in the immediate aftermath of World War II — and therefore more than the usual number of retirements.
Source: Associated Press