Vowing to act “whenever and wherever” he can, President Barack Obama unveiled an array of executive actions in his State of the Union address Tuesday night aimed at bolstering economic security for millions of Americans. His directives, mostly modest in scope, include increasing wages for some new workers on government contracts, making it easier for lower-income people to save for retirement and providing new incentives to use natural gas.
In a sign of his troubled relationship with the divided Congress, Obama’s separate 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 and pass an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage. His one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” Obama said. “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.”
Draped in presidential grandeur, Obama’s prime-time address to a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching at home 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.
“Opportunity is who we are,” Obama said. “And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”
For Obama, the address was aimed at convincing 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.
Some Republicans have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they 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 Republican 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 levies on Iran while nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic are underway.
Washington’s current focus on income inequality comes as many parts of the economy are gaining strength. 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.
“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.”
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 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.
“The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help?” Boehner said. “I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”
White House officials said many more working people would benefit if Congress would go along with Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage across the board.