WASHINGTON -- President Obama said he would act alone or with Congress in a speech that mixed high aspirations with modest proposals on Tuesday.
In his State of the Union report, the President celebrated the “grit and determined effort” that pulled the nation out of recession, the end of the war in Afghanistan, bipartisan successes, and an improving economic outlook.
He challenged Congress to work with him on a policy blueprint he outlined that included initiatives on jobs, wages, education, and energy. He strongly urged Congress to reform immigration laws and extend unemployment benefits. His program, he said, was founded on “the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.”
That belief has suffered “some serious blows,” he acknowledged in the speech.
“Our job is to reverse these tides. It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything, but 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 to the middle class,” he said.
Let’s make this a year of action,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”
But if Congress won’t go along with his plans, the President said he has other tools at his disposal: a pen to sign executive actions and a phone to rally support.
“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,” he said.
Mr. Obama laid out a series of paired proposals, spelling out some modest measures he'd take on his own and calling on Congress to work on the same issue.
He said he would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour for workers in new federal contracts, such as civilian military employees who serve food, wash dishes, and launder uniforms. That’s something he can do without approval from Congress, which refused to go along with the $9 federal minimum wage that the President asked for in last year’s State of the Union address. He again asked Congress to boost the minimum wage for all workers, this time to $10.10.
Energy independence is key to bringing back jobs, he said, promising to help cut red tape in order to facilitate construction of factories fueled by natural gas.
The President said he plans to use executive action to create a government-run retirement program for workers whose employers don’t offer pension plans. Under the program, workers could sign up to have a percentage of their pay deducted to buy Treasury bonds, which would go into an individual retirement account.
He touted his health-reform bill, which suffered a disastrous rollout fall but has resulted in millions signing up for insurance on exchanges or through Medicaid. He challenged Congress to stop taking votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and make proposals that would improve health care.
Mr. Obama said he'd asked Vice President Joe Biden to lead a reform of job training programs, and again suggested that Congress could fund “proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-fill jobs.”
He announced plans to supplement two high-tech hubs started last year with six more, and asked Congress for more.
He also called for reforming unemployment insurance. “But first, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” he said, and cited the example of Misty DeMars, a mother of two children who wrote him a letter about her loss of unemployment insurance. She'd been employed since she was a teenager and put herself through college, but had lost her job. “Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance. They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game.”
Mr. Obama paid tribute to the military, and called on Congress to lift restrictions that prevent the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
The speech showed a shift in tone for the President, who used previous speeches as opportunities — mostly failed ones in the end — to coax Republicans toward compromise on gun control, immigration, and other issues. His call for a year of action and his stated willingness to govern by executive order doesn’t sit well with Republicans. Many said an increase in the minimum wage would stymie job creation because employers won’t be able to afford to grow their companies.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), chairman of the Republican Conference, delivered her party’s official response to the President’s address.
“I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision — one that empowers you, not the government,” she said in a televised speech. “It’s one that champions free markets — and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you. It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable.”
The most touching moment of the speech was the closing tale of a soldier gravely wounded, and the young man's slow rising to acknowledge the applause of the audience. Mr. Obama said he met Army Ranger Cory Remsburg at Omaha Beach, and then later visited him in the hospital after he was badly injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
“Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye,” Mr. Obama told the audience. “He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad, Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again — and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.”
“My recovery has not been easy,” Mr. Obama quoted him as saying. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.” That, Mr. Obama said, is true of America as well.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Tracie Mauriello at: email@example.com or 703-996-9292.
SELECT QUOTES FROM ADDRESS
Selected quotes from U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address today: