President Barack Obama won’t wait for Congress to take action on his agenda, vowing in Tuesday’s State of the Union address to use executive powers to sidestep Republican roadblocks on Capitol Hill.
"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."
Despite the congressional logjam, Obama declared, “I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America.”
"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," he said. "Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you."
He added, "In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want."
Still, his vow to go it alone where he sees fit stems from his experience over the last year, when recalcitrant members of Congress -- particularly Republicans in the House -- refused to even consider much of the president's agenda.
Obama outlined a litany of executive actions he intends to take in the coming months to advance the themes of opportunity he focused on in his speech. Among them:
- Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for workers on federal contracts;
- Establishing a government-backed “myRA” retirement savings program for working Americans;
- Setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.
Obama will need the help of Congress if he’s to have any hope of tackling the meatiest elements of his policy proposals in the State of the Union. The president implored lawmakers to extend unemployment insurance, raise the overall minimum wage, pass immigration reform, expand Pre-K education, cut tax breaks for wealthy retirees, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, give him Trade Promotion Authority and pass patent legislation -- among other priorities Obama mentioned, and which Congress would have to approve.
Republicans sought to put a soft edge on their response to Obama with a speech from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
"Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder," she said in the official G.O.P. response. "Republicans have plans to close the gap -- plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape."
Some of the brightest lines drawn by Obama didn’t involve domestic policy, but rather, foreign policy -- a policy arena to which second-term presidents often appeal given their broad authority.
“Even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks -- through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners -- America must move off a permanent war footing,” Obama said in lauding the fruits of diplomatic efforts in Iran, Syria and the Middle East.
But Obama also threatened to veto legislation under consideration by Congress to increase sanctions on Iran, a proposal which could derail diplomatic talks with the Iranian regime.
At times, Obama seemed to scold the House G.O.P., particularly for its repeated votes to undo health care reform, his signature domestic achievement.
“Let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda,” he said. “The first forty were plenty. We got it.”
If we work together; if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow -- I know it’s within our reach
Obama also nodded to some of the initial struggles encountered by the Affordable Care Act, namely lackluster enrollment numbers depressed in part by the botched launch of the online portal to sign up for health care plans.
“That's why, tonight, I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31,” he said.
The speech came Tuesday as a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed that sixty eight percent of Americans said the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office.
But Obama closed his speech with a litany of upbeat examples of Americans who had benefited from programs to improve mobility and expand opportunity. And he ended his remarks with a plea for cooperation.
“The America we want for our kids – a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us – none of it is easy,” he said. “But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow -- I know it’s within our reach.”