In State of the Union, Obama vows to expand opportunity, with or without Congress

President Obama sought Tuesday to restore public confidence in his presidency after a dispiriting year, pledging to use his White House authority with new force to advance an agenda that Congress has largely refused to support.

In his fifth prime-time State of the Union address, Obama made clear that instead of trying to fix the mess in Washington, he was now promising to find ways around it.

“America does not stand still,” Obama said, “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.”

In a speech that lasted just over an hour, Obama struck some bipartisan harmony, most notably in an emotional moment near the end when he called on the nation to draw inspiration from Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger blinded in one eye by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment.

Remsburg, who was dressed in his uniform and seated next to first lady Michelle Obama, drew a lengthy standing ovation in the House chamber, and he flashed them a determined thumbs-up.

For most of the speech, however, Obama emphasized that he will no longer be content to wait for Congress’s approval after a bruising 2013 in which it rarely came. He challenged lawmakers to work with him to achieve breakthroughs on large-scale initiatives to overhaul immigration laws and provide more benefits to American workers, including a higher minimum wage and extension of long-term unemployment insurance.

But he also sketched out more than a dozen ways in which he intends to use executive powers to try to boost the economy on his own.

Obama covered topics as wide-ranging as equal pay for women, gun violence and Iran’s nuclear program. He ticked off accomplishments: a rebounding housing market, lower unemployment, manufacturing gains and smaller annual deficits.

Yet he made the case that Congress, and Washington politics more broadly, had become a roadblock to progress.

When Washington’s fighting “prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people,” Obama said.

He faced a tricky task: winning over a nation that has grown less trustful of his leadership after a year in which the federal government was partially shuttered for 16 days and the administration botched the rollout of Obama’s health-care law.

For the first time on the eve of a State of the Union address, more Americans rated his performance negatively than positively, with 50 percent disapproving. To that end, Obama announced a list of executive actions that he will pursue in the coming months aimed at slowing the widening income gap among American families, which the White House has called a top priority for the year. Among them were plans to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, create a new government-backed private retirement savings plan, and speed up implementation of a previously announced program to connect schools to wireless broadband.

White House aides described the initiatives as having the potential to help millions of Americans gain more take-home pay, job training and education. They pointed to previous examples of Obama using executive action to defer deportations of hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants brought to the country by their parents as children and to strengthen regulations on carbon emissions at power plants.

Such moves “were bigger than anything Congress passed in the last two years aside from the budget,” one senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Obama’s speech.

But Republicans quickly denounced the new proposals as small potatoes and accused the president of abandoning more-sweeping initiatives by refusing to work through the legislative process.

“I suspect the president has the authority to raise the minimum wage for those dealing with federal contracts,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said before the speech Tuesday, after Obama’s plans were leaked by the White House. “But let’s understand something: This affects not one current contract; it only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think the question is: How many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

White House aides acknowledged that the program pertains to future contracts, and they were unable to quantify how many could be helped by the program in the next year, saying more details will be announced in the coming days as Obama embarks on a four-state tour Wednesday and Thursday to rally the public behind his initiatives.

In the official Republican Party response to Obama’s address, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) faulted Obama’s approach to the economy. Though the national unemployment rate fell last month to 6.7 percent — the lowest level in more than five years — the drop was powered mostly by a growing number of people who stopped looking for work. “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one,” McMorris Rodgers said. “Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”

The exception to the combative posture from the White House was on immigration reform, which House Republican leaders have signaled in recent weeks that they could be ready to entertain. Obama touched just briefly on the topic, reiterating his call for a comprehensive bill that includes a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.

Overall, Obama’s scaled-down ambitions were reflected in how his speech compared with last year’s, which he concluded with an emotional appeal to Congress to approve a set of gun-control measures his administration had proposed after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Congress rejected each of those proposals, and though Obama touched on gun violence briefly in Tuesday’s address, he has abandoned his call for broad measures in recent months.

Instead, Obama also praised his health-care law, which is both the signature achievement of his administration and — because of the fraught rollout of HealthCare.gov last year — the centerpiece of Republicans’ case against him. Obama described the situation of an Arizona woman, Amanda Shelley, who he said had obtained coverage Jan. 1 because of the law. On Jan. 6, she had emergency surgery — which, Obama said, “would’ve meant bankruptcy” if she had not been covered.

Then, after saying that the law had made changes for the better, Obama made a blunter argument aimed at congressional Republicans: No matter what they think of the law, they now have no choice but to live with it.

“I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles,” Obama said. “So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty.”

On foreign policy, Obama highlighted the U.S. military’s withdrawal from the long war in Afghanistan, telling the public that the country could maintain a small force there for counterterrorism operations and to train Afghan troops. And he implored Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran as his administration attempts to negotiate a multilateral agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Wrapping up his address, Obama acknowledged Remsburg.

He “never gives up, and he never quits,” Obama said, turning to a broader call on the nation to follow the soldier’s lead. “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,” Obama said. “But if we work together, if we summon what is best in us . . . I know it is within our reach. Believe it.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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