WASHINGTON — After five years of fractious political combat, President Barack Obama declared independence from Congress on Tuesday as he vowed to tackle economic disparity with a series of limited initiatives on jobs, wages and retirement that he will take without legislative approval.
Promising "a year of action" as he tries to rejuvenate a presidency mired in low approval ratings and stymied by partisan stalemates, Obama used his annual State of the Union address to chart a new path forward relying on his own executive authority.
"I'm eager to work with all of you," a relaxed and confident Obama told lawmakers of both parties in the nationally televised speech in the House chamber. "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."
The president touched on foreign policy, asserting that "American diplomacy backed by the threat of force" had forced Syria to give up chemical weapons and that "American diplomacy backed by pressure" had brought Iran to the negotiating table. And he repeated his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan this year and threatened again to veto sanctions on Iran that disrupt his diplomatic efforts.
But the main thrust of Obama's message was the wide gap between the wealthiest and the rest of Americans, and he used the speech to position himself as a champion of those left behind in the modern economy. "Those at the top have never done better," he 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 to get ahead," he added. "And too many still aren't working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends."
To do so, the president announced an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contract workers and the creation of a new Treasury bond for workers without access to traditional retirement options. He proposed incentives for trucks running on alternative fuels and higher efficiency standards for those running on gasoline.
Obama was gambling that a series of ideas that seemed small-bore on their own would add up to a larger collective vision of an America with expanded opportunity. But the moderate ambitions were a stark contrast to past years when Obama proposed sweeping legislation to remake the nation's health care system, regulate Wall Street, curb climate change and restrict access to high-powered firearms.
Republicans planned to fire back by blaming Obama for the country's economic problems, but the party's leaders avoided the language of last year's government shutdown and hoped to present what Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington called "a more hopeful, Republican vision."
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Obama said he was not giving up on Congress altogether, and his speech recycled calls for many of his past legislative priorities, including extending unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage across the board and banning employment discrimination against gay men and lesbians. He also called for expanding the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers without children.
But after a year in which most of his legislative priorities, like gun control, went nowhere, Obama has made it clear that he has restrained expectations about his ability to compromise with Republicans who control the House, although immigration is one major area where both sides see compromise as possible.
Given the stalemate, Obama's minimum wage plan provided an example of the new approach he plans. He called on Congress during last year's State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for workers across the board, only to watch the proposal languish on Capitol Hill. With prospects for congressional action still slim, Obama wants to use the executive order covering new federal contractors to go as far as he can on his own.
Some of the president's liberal supporters said that he did not go far enough and should have applied the wage increase to existing federal contract employees. "This action, while a step forward, suggests he may still be unwilling to take the fighting stance necessary to deliver the big wins over growing inequality that our country desperately needs," said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, an advocacy group founded by his brother, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.
Yet Obama's vow to use his executive authority more robustly drew criticism from Republicans who say he has already stretched the bounds of his power, much as Democrats accused President George W. Bush of doing the same thing.
"Choosing to circumvent our legislative process and govern through executive power not only violates our constitutional system of checks and balances, but it poses a direct threat to our liberty," Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma, said in a statement accompanying a video posted by the Republican Attorneys General Association.
By the numbers, Obama has so far been restrained in his use of executive power. He has signed just 168 executive orders so far, and the 147 he issued in his first term were the fewest of any president over a similar period going back at least a century. In their first terms, George W. Bush signed 173 executive orders, Bill Clinton signed 200 and Ronald Reagan signed 213.