WASHINGTON — President Obama lamented on Tuesday night the growing income gap and deep economic anxiety lingering across the country, saying he is prepared to take a series of executive actions to circumvent Congress wherever possible to try to prop up the middle class.
As Obama began framing his final three years in office — and attempted to turn around his troubled presidency — his State of the Union address amounted to a populist plea to a deeply divided Congress and to a nation that has grown increasingly disenchanted with his performance.
With few areas of legislative daylight, Obama said he was preparing to utilize the full powers of his office to take action himself on an economic agenda that aims to raise the minimum wage, provide more assistance to middle-class families, and help the long-term unemployed.
“I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I,” he told members of Congress as he called for “a year of action.” “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.”
As the midterm elections approach — and as Democrats urge the administration to show more vigor — Obama said his focus would be to combat a growing gap between the rich and the poor. The economy may be improving, he said, but not all Americans are benefiting from the growth.
“Those at the top have never done better,” Obama 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 get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
Obama announced he was signing an executive order that raises the hourly minimum wage to $10.10 for workers under new federal contracts starting in 2015. The change in policy will help hundreds of thousands of federal contract workers, but it’s a far cry from the millions that would be affected by a broader change in the minimum wage.
Obama also called on Congress to raise the minimum wage for all Americans to $10.10 an hour, up from the current $7.25, but Republicans in the past have ignored similar proposals. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $8, among the nation’s highest.
“Opportunity is who we are,” Obama said, noting the House speaker is the son of a barkeeper and the president is the son of a single mom.
House Speaker John Boehner — who gave a thumbs up at the mention of his father — earlier on Tuesday said an across-the-board minimum wage increase could damage a fragile economy. He also warned the president in stark terms against attempting to wield too much executive power.
“This idea that he’s just going to go it alone, I have to remind him we do have a constitution,” Boehner said. “And the Congress writes the laws, and the president’s job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this he’s going to run into a brick wall.”
Republicans also answered Obama’s speech by saying government should be getting less involved in Americans’ lives, not more, and by pointing to the health care law and its badly handled rollout as an example where government bureaucracy has failed.
“We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said in the official Republican response. “No, we shouldn’t go back to the way things were, but the president’s health care law is not working.”
Obama defended the law, promoting some of its most popular components and saying he had no interest in refighting old battles.
The State of the Union speech, delivered in the House chamber amid pageantry and applause, contained a long list of White House priorities.
Obama talked about the urgency to combat climate change, the need to improve the public education system, and his desire to improve technology in rural America. He also noted that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.
“That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment,” he said. “A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job . . . . It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.”
The speech comes after a tumultuous year for the Obama administration, with self-inflicted wounds on health care, continued violence gripping Syria, and Congress blocking White House proposals.
The hour of uninterrupted time to speak directly to the American public gave Obama an opportunity to make a comeback, reinvigorate his presidency, and regain the trust of a public that has given him poor reviews in polls.
It was a striking contrast to a year ago, when he came off his reelection with more confidence and a bigger agenda.
“In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together,” Obama said. “Let’s make this a year of action.’’
Obama’s speech illustrated some of the scaled-back ambitions as he looks to his final three years in office. Much of the speech outlined smaller, incremental steps rather than the soaring visionary rhetoric that has twice led Obama to the White House.
He instead recommitted to the priorities that he outlined last year, almost none of which have been realized.
In passing, he said he would continue to try to prevent more tragedies caused by gun violence — even though the Senate failed to pass a gun control measure last year. Obama devoted only a small portion of the speech to immigration, perhaps a signal that he doesn’t want his strong backing to poison discussions on Capitol Hill. House Republicans are expected to soon outline their immigration framework.
The president who once said he was coming to change Washington’s partisanship is now turning his attention to things he can take action on without the consent from Congress. The catchphrase now at the White House is that he plans to use the “pen and phone” sitting on his desk to make change.
He’ll use the pen to sign executive actions that require no congressional approval, and he’ll use the phone to call business and university leaders to encourage them to adopt new policies. For example, he hosted university presidents at the White House earlier this month to discuss ways to increase educational access for low-income and minority students.
In the small portion of the speech dedicated to foreign policy, Obama defended negotiations with Iran to reduce, and eventually eliminate, its stockpiles of uranium. He also noted the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama said he would reform the nation’s surveillance programs, only briefly alluding to the revelations that have come from documents leaked by Edward Snowden and the complaints that government is invading the privacy of average Americans.
One of the most poignant parts of the speech came toward the end, as the president mentioned Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who has learned to speak, stand, and walk again after he was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. At the mention of his resilience the room rose in long, sustained applause.
While presidents often describe the state of the union as “strong,” Americans increasingly are describing it in other ways. In a new poll, 37 percent said it was “divided,” while 23 percent said it was “troubled” and 21 percent said it was “deteriorating.” Only 3 percent said it was “strong.”
The poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, also found that only 43 percent of those surveyed approve of the job Obama is doing, putting him on rocky ground. In recent decades, only President George W. Bush had such low ratings heading into his sixth year as president.
Obama plans to hold a series of events over the next several days. He’s traveling to a Costco in Maryland on Wednesday, followed by a steel mill in West Mifflin, Pa. On Thursday, he’s heading to a General Electric facility in Milwaukee and a high school in Nashville.