Obama stresses executive action
State of the Union speech calls for wide-ranging initiatives
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sought Tuesday to restore public confidence and trust 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 failed
In his fifth prime-time State of the Union address, Obama 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 longterm 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, a recognition by the president that he is running out of time to achieve his goals in the face of hardening Republican opposition.
“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. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I,” Obama planned to say, according to excerpts released ahead of the speech by the White House. “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 the course of his speech, estimated to last about an hour in the House chamber, Obama laid out what aides described as an “optimistic” view of where the nation is headed, calling for a “year of action” just months after the public grew disenchanted with Washington amid a 17-day partial government shutdown last fall.
Obama’s tricky task, though, was to convince a nation that had grown less trustful of his leadership that he is still able to break through the partisan gridlock to make meaningful improvement in people’s lives. For the first time on the eve of a State of the Union address, more Americans rate 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, a actions 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 from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2015, create a new government-backed private retirement savings plan and speed up implementation of a previously announced program to connect schools to broadband wireless.
White House aides described the initiatives as having the potential to help millions of Americans gain more take home pay, job training and education. One senior administration official pointed to previous examples of Obama using executive action to defer deportations of young undocumented immigrants brought to the country by their parents as children and to strengthen environmental regulations as examples of programs that “were bigger anything Congress passed in the last two years aside from the budget.”
But Republicans quickly denounced the new proposals as small potatoes, and accused the president of failing to work through the legislative process to achieve more sweeping initiatives.
“I suspect the president has the authority to raise the minimum wage for those dealing with federal contracts,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday, after Obama’s plans were make public. “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.”
Asked about Boehner’s comments, White House aides acknowledged the program pertains to future contracts and they were unable to quantify how many could be helped by the program in the coming year.
Boehner said the White House should approve the long-delayed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, which would move oil from Canada into the United States, which Republicans and labor unions have said would create thousands of jobs. Obama has said he is awaiting a State Department review of the environmental impact.
In the official Republican Party response to Obama’s address, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., faulted Obama’s approach to the economy. Though the 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 unemployed people who stopped looking for work.