Barack Obama urges 'year of action' in state of union speech,
President Barack Obama is vowing to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America's middle class in a state of the union speech he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year.
Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before legislators, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by issuing a raft of executive orders
— a move likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans.
Obama's actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted to an expression of frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans who control the House of Representatives and are able to slow the president's agenda.
The president says he plans to issue an executive order in the coming weeks requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees at least $10.10 an hour, and urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to the same amount.
"Say yes. Give America a raise."
He also announced the creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement.
"I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama said. "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."
Obama touted the work of Republicans and Democrats is producing a budget last month that "undoes some of last year's severe cuts to priorities like education," saying the budget compromise should leave the government freer to focus on creating new jobs.
"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead," he said.
"Let's face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the great recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on."
A central theme of the address, Obama's sixth such annual speech in the House chamber, is addressing income inequality, as middle-class Americans struggle to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery.
'Let's get immigration reform done'
Obama's strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on small-bore initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle class workers.
Obama defended his controversial health-care law, whose troubled roll-out last October rocked his presidency and sent his job approval ratings tumbling to around 40 per cent.
"I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."
On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he held his fire on the issue, with signs of possible progress developing in recent days among House Republicans.
"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.
Obama also pledged to continue to work to reduce violence in the United States despite a lack of support in Congress for gun control measures he failed to get passed last year.
"I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say, 'We are not
afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theatres, shopping malls, or schools," Obama said, according to the text of his state of the union address.
Both immigration and gun control were reforms on Obama's to-do list last year that stalled in Congress.
He also told lawmakers he will veto any efforts to increase sanctions on Iran while the United States and other Western powers were in diplomatic talks with Tehran over its nuclear program.
"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible," Obama said, according to the text of his address, referring to diplomatic talks.
"But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."
Closing Guantanamo Bay
In his speech, Obama said this needs to be the year the prison at Guantanamo Bay is closed.
"Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world," he said.
Obama said the U.S. government will "support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future," without making any specific promises around troop levels in the country.
"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda," he said.
"For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."