Obama Promises Action in State of the Union, With or Without Congress

By: Kevin Derby | Posted: January 28, 2014 11:30 PM
Barack Obama

Barack Obama

In his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama called for a “year of action” to offer “opportunity for all,” even as he put Congress on notice he would use executive orders to push his economic agenda and will ignore legislative checks-and-balances if he feels it warranted.

Obama offered the speech as the economy seems to be doing better. But Obama has not benefited from the economic rebound. Recent polls show he remains upside down and his signature health-care law also polls poorly. With Republicans expected to gain seats in the U.S. Senate come November, including having a fair possibility of flipping the chamber, and Democrats having almost no chance of winning the U.S. House, Obama’s window of opportunity to pass legislation is closing.

See a full transcript of the president's address here, as prepared for delivery.

In his speech, Obama insisted the economy was doing better with more Americans getting jobs, smaller deficits, more domestic oil and less reliance on other nations for it. “Business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s No. 1 place to invest,” Obama said. “America is."

Obama called for Congress to follow his lead on the economy and to work together. “That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations,” Obama said. “And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows,” Obama added. “Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.

“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,” Obama continued. “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 get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all. Our job is to reverse these tides. It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything.”

With a Republican-controlled House and Democrats in charge of the Senate, Obama left little room for doubt that he would go around Congress if he felt he needed to. “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 insisted. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. 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.”

Even on reducing federal regulations, Obama insisted he would act on his own if Congress did nothing. “I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and keep cutting the permitting process for key projects,” Obama said.

Insisting America is getting closer to economic independence than ever before, Obama also said he would use executive power to push for his environmental agenda. “I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine landscapes for future generations,” Obama said. 

Turning to immigration reform, Obama did not bring up using executive power to advance his agenda. Despite bipartisan efforts from the “Gang of Eight” in the Senate, immigration reform is stalled in the House. "If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to ... fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said. “Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion ... let’s get immigration reform done this year.”

Turning to unemployment, Obama chided Congress for letting unemployment benefits expire. “This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people," Obama said.

Focusing on education, Obama announced he had named Vice President Joe Biden to “lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs." He called for expanding pre-K programs and called for reforming assessments.

"We ... have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education,” Obama said before calling for “new ways to measure how well our kids think” instead of relying on “how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.”

Getting back to the workforce, Obama said women in the workforce make 77 cents for each $1 a man makes. Calling this “wrong” and an “embarrassment,” Obama called for Congress and businesses to work together to correct this. “Women deserve equal pay for equal work.”

Obama also blasted “stagnant wages” and called for increasing the minimum wage. “Since I asked ... Congress to raise the minimum wage, five states have passed laws to raise theirs,” Obama said, before encouraging state leaders and businesses to raise their minimum wages. “Do what you can to raise your employees’ wages. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for America.” Obama said he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage to federally contracted employees to $10.10 an hour.

Obama called for Washington to increase the minimum wage. “Congress does need to get on board,” Obama said. “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”

Citing the support of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Obama called for securing the Earned Income Tax Credit. "Let’s work together to strengthen it, reward work, and help more Americans get ahead." Obama also called for giving Americans “access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everyone in this chamber can.”

Obama also defended his health-care law. Insisting Americans did not want to “fight old battles,” Obama praised the law. "For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health care system,” Obama said. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, over 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid."

But Obama turned to other issues which he labeled under “citizenship” and said he would work on his own when it comes to gun control. "I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies,” Obama said.

Turning to international affairs, Obama said America has made great strides under his watch. "When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “Today, all our troops are out of Iraq ... together with our allies, we will complete our mission by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over." Obama did leave the door open to a “small” American force working with NATO allies to stay in Aghanistan to fight terrorists and provide support.

Staying on the Middle East, Obama also pledged to support Israel’s security and efforts for an independent state. He also pledged opposition to the Syrian regime and to the Iranian government from creating nuclear weapons. While Obama said he supported the sanctions currently in place, he warned Congress he would veto additional sanctions which could undermine further negotiations with Iran.

Obama also insisted the nation supported increased democracy and equality at home and across the globe. “We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation," Obama said, claiming the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympic Team would be living proof of this next week.

After praising veterans and promising to work to help them succeed in private life, Obama closed with a reminder: “America never comes easy ... sometimes, we stumble.”

Obama called for Americans to keep working to improve the nation. "For more than 200 years ... we have placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress," Obama said, insisting he supports "a rising America where ... opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us -- none of it is easy."

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., offered the Republican response. McMorris Rodgers is the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, making her the highest ranking woman in the GOP leadership.

McMorris Rodgers insisted the most important parts of the American experience did not take place in Washington. “That’s the genius of America.”

Reviewing Obama‘s speech, McMorris Rodgers said he made promises that “sound good” but insisted they “won’t solve the problems of Americans.” The congresswoman instead offered personal accounts of family and her own experiences including working on farms and at McDonald’s. Saying she wanted to “empower people, not the politicians,” McMorris Rodgers called for free-market solutions and less government before turning back to her family, talking about how she met her husband and having a child with Down's syndrome.

“We are not defined by our limits but by our potential,” McMorris Rodgers said before bashing Obama’s take on “economic inequality.” McMorris Rodgers slammed Obama’s handling of the economy. “Too many people are falling further and further behind,” she said. 

“Right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”

McMorris Roders insisted Republicans had their own immigration reform plan and called for lower taxes and ending Obama’s health care law. “This law is not working,” she said. “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's.”

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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