By JULIE PACE, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address to sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever" necessary to narrow economic disparities between rich and poor. He unveiled an array of modest executive actions to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers and make it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.
"America does not stand still and neither do I," Obama declared in his prime-time address before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television.
Draped in presidential grandeur, Obama's address served as the opening salvo in a midterm election fight for control of Congress that will quickly consume Washington's attention. Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Obama to focus on economic mobility and the gap between the wealthy and poor. His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of "Do it!" from many members of his party.
Declaring 2014 a "year of action," Obama also sought to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he still wields power in Washington even if he can't crack through the divisions in Congress. Burned by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they're now redefining success not by what Obama can jam through Congress but by what actions he can take on his own.
Indeed, Obama's proposals for action by lawmakers were slim and largely focused on old ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul, pass an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education — all ideas that gained little traction after he proposed them last year. The president's one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.
Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings fall further in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening gap between rich and poor as a symptom of Obama's economic policies.
"Republicans have plans to close the gap, plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts and red tape," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in the Republicans' televised response to the president's speech.
The economy and other domestic issues, including health care, dominated the president's address. He touched only briefly on foreign policy, touting the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan this year and reiterating his threat to veto any new sanctions Congress might levy on Iran while nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic are underway.
Even as Washington increasingly focuses on income inequality, many parts of the economy are gaining strength, with corporate profits soaring and the financial markets hitting record highs. But with millions of Americans still out of work or struggling with stagnant wages, Obama has found himself in the sometimes awkward position of promoting a recovery that feels distant for many.
"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," Obama said. "And too many still aren't working at all."
The president garnered some of his loudest applause — at least from Democrats — when he took on lawmakers who oppose his signature health care law, which floundered in its initial rollout last fall. Obama said that while he doesn't expect to convince Republicans on the merits of the law, "I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."
The president's speech drew an eclectic mix of visitors to the House chamber. Among those sitting with first lady Michelle Obama were two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player. Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought business owners from his home state of Ohio who say Obama's health care overhaul is hurting their companies. Willie Robertson, a star of the television show "Duck Dynasty," also scored a seat in the House gallery, courtesy of the Republicans.
Though Obama sought to emphasize his presidential powers, there are stark limits to what he can do on his own. For example, he unilaterally can raise the minimum hourly wage for new federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, as he announced, but he'll need Congress in order to extend that increase to all of America's workers.
The executive order for contractors, which Obama will sign in the coming weeks, is limited in its scope. It will not affect existing federal contracts, only new ones, and then only if other terms of an agreement change.
Republicans quickly panned the executive initiative as ineffective. Said Boehner: "The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."
White House officials countered by saying many more working people would benefit if Congress would go along with Obama's plan to raise the minimum wage across the board.
"Give America a raise," Obama declared.
Among the president's other executive initiatives is a plan to help workers whose employers don't offer retirement savings plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs. Obama is expected to promote the "starter" accounts during a trip to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
The president also announced new commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed, the creation of four "manufacturing hubs" where universities and businesses would work together to develop and train workers, new incentives to encourage truckers to switch from dirtier fuels to natural gas or other alternatives and a proposed tax credit to promote the adoption of cars that can run on cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, natural gas or biofuels.
The president's go-it-alone strategy is in many ways an acknowledgment that he has failed to make good on two major promises to the American people: that he would change Washington's hyper-partisanship and that his re-election would break the Republican "fever" and clear the way for congressional action on major initiatives.
Some Republicans have warned that the president's focus on executive orders could backfire by angering GOP leaders who already don't trust the White House.
Obama isn't abandoning Congress completely. He made a renewed pitch for legislation to overhaul the nation's fractured immigration laws, perhaps his best opportunity for signing significant legislation this year. But the odds remain long, with many Republicans staunchly opposed to Obama's plan for creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.
Seeking to give the GOP some room to maneuver, Obama did not specifically call for a citizenship pathway Tuesday, saying only, "Let's get it done. It's time."
Opening a new front with Congress, the president called for an extension of the earned-income tax credit, which helps boost the wages of low-income families through tax refunds. Obama wants it broadened so that it provides more help than it does now to workers without children, a view embraced by some Republicans and conservative economists.
Obama singled out Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has proposed replacing the tax credit with a federal wage supplement for workers in certain low-paying jobs. Unlike Obama, however, Republicans have suggested expanding the tax credit as an alternative to increasing the minimum wage.
Pivoting briefly to foreign policy, Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.
The president also warned lawmakers in both parties against passing new economic sanctions against Iran while the U.S. and international partners are holding nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic. He renewed his commitment to veto sanctions legislation if it passes, arguing that a new round of penalties would upend the sensitive diplomacy.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Jim Kuhnhenn, Nedra Pickler and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.
BEFORE YOU GO
01/29/2014 1:22 AM EST
Sen. Menendez On Obama Sinking His Iran Sanctions Bill: 'I'm Not Frustrated'
President Barack Obama made clear Tuesday night that an Iran sanctions bill being pushed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) isn't going anywhere, threatening a veto if it ever made it to his desk.
HuffPost caught up with Menendez after the president's address and asked for his thoughts on Obama shutting down his legislation. He didn't have much to say.
"I’m not frustrated," said the New Jersey Democrat as he ducked into an elevator, pushing the buttons and looking ready to be done with the conversation. "The president has every right to do what he wants."
Menendez's bill has bipartisan support, but it faces stiff resistance from the White House, which argues it may thwart a delicate deal now in place between Iran and a number of world powers, including the United States. Under that six-month deal, Iran will stop developing its nuclear capability in exchange for an ease in existing sanctions.
Speaking to a group of reporters as he made his way to the elevator, Menendez said his "real concern" is that, without steadily imposing sanctions on Iran, the U.S. will ultimately let them all fall away.
"We'll have to accept a nuclear weapons state or we're going to end up with a military option," he said. "We won't have sanctions in place anymore."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he noticed something different about the way the president talked about Iran during Tuesday's address.
"He talked about preventing them from building a nuclear weapon. It used to be we're going to prevent them from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon. That seems to be gone," Lankford said. "It was all about just not getting to the last stage rather than capability. That's a pretty big shift."
-- Jennifer Bendery and Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 1:03 AM EST
Michele Bachmann: Equal Pay Is So Old
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) didn't think much of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address (aside form his support for wounded warriors), but she was especially dismissive of his appeal for women to get equal pay. That's just so over, Bachmann argued.
"Frankly, a lot of what we heard were 40-year-old prescriptions and 40-year-old bromides. I mean really, equal pay for equal work?" Bachmann said. "I mean, this was something in the 1970s people were talking about. So I think we've addressed that."
Most economists estimate that women earn about 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
-- Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 12:57 AM EST
Sen. Lindsey Graham: 'World Is Literally About To Blow Up'
Shortly after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters point-blank: "The world is literally about to blow up and our president did not really paint a fair picture of the threats we face."
Graham, a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, said he wanted Obama to tell the American public during his annual address how he intends to resolve the conflict in Syria and questioned whether the administration's negotiations with Iranians over their nuclear program would be productive.
"I cannot stress to you enough how disappointed I was to hear the president's explanation of the state of affairs when it comes to the Mid-East and our national security threats," Graham said. "I thought he underplayed that and oversold. Explain what happens in the Middle East if the Syrian conflict goes on and (Bashar al) Assad continues to win."
He went on: "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing."
Graham and a bipartisan group of senators have called for more sanctions on Iran. Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would increase such sanctions.
-- Eugene Mulero
01/29/2014 12:35 AM EST
State Of The Union Poll Gives Obama Positive Marks
HuffPost's Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal report:
CNN's instant polling among Americans who watched Tuesday's State of the Union found an overwhelming majority reacting positively to President Barack Obama's address, as it has four times previously during his presidency.
The network's poll found that 76 percent of Americans viewed the speech somewhat or very positively, in line with reactions to his previous speeches, although the percentage with "very positive" views declined. Last year, 77 percent of watchers reported a positive view of the speech to CNN, and slightly higher numbers approved of Obama's speeches in three previous years. (The network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012.)
01/29/2014 12:15 AM EST
GOP Response To State Of The Union Leaves Out These Words: Repeal Obamacare
Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) delivered harsh criticisms of President Barack Obama's health care reform law during the official GOP response to his State of the Union address Tuesday, but stopped short of explicitly demanding its repeal.
McMorris-Rodgers highlighted the negative effects of the Affordable Care Act on consumers whose premiums rose, whose previous health insurance policies were canceled because they didn't meet the law's benefit standards and whose physicians aren't covered by the new plans available on Obamacare's health insurance exchanges. But while McMorris-Rodgers declared Obama's reforms a failure, she didn't vow that congressional Republicans would continue their push to repeal the law, for which the GOP-led House has vote dozens of times.
"No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's," McMorris-Rodgers said. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made no mention of Obamacare in the written statement he issued following the speaches by Obama and McMorris-Rodgers.
01/28/2014 11:17 PM EST
Environmental advocates had mixed reviews for the climate and energy portions of President Barack Obama's speech –- praising his climate comments but criticizing his energy strategy.
A number of environmental groups wrote to the president earlier this month asking him to drop his "all-of-the-above" rhetoric on energy. That policy, they wrote, is "fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution." But Obama's speech doubled down on that language, claiming that the strategy "is working."
"If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement following the speech. "We can’t effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time."
Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, noted that the speech "was filled with unhelpful contradictions" in an email to The Huffington Post. "You cannot address carbon pollution through an all of the above energy policy. You cannot promote regulatory streamlining and trade pacts that will undermine governments regulations while trying to implement carbon pollution regulations."
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, praised the climate portion of the speech but also brought up the environmental elephant in the room that Obama didn't address tonight: the Keystone XL pipeline. His statement called on Obama to reject the proposed pipeline from Canada to Texas.
-- Kate Sheppard
01/28/2014 11:16 PM EST
Republicans Respond To Obama With A Soft-Focus Human Interest Speech
HuffPost's Jon Ward reports:
The response to the president's State of the Union address from Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), the GOP's fourth-ranking member in the House, was largely an attempt to present a humanizing side of the GOP, "a more hopeful Republican vision."
The 44-year old mother of three, who gave birth to her third child in November, talked at length about her own biography: She worked at a McDonald's drive-through in college, she got up before dawn to pick apples on her family's orchard, she was in the 4H Club, she's married to a retired Navy commander. The YouTube livestream of her speech featured a picture of McMorris-Rodgers' family when she mentioned her husband and children.
Beyond that, her speech was largely a string of generalized bromides about how Republicans want to "empower people, not politicians."
But for a party that has lost support among women voters in the last few elections -- and is viewed by a good number of voters as the party of old white men -- such a soft-focus human interest speech was just what the GOP wanted.
01/28/2014 11:12 PM EST
Obama Barely Mentions Government Shutdown, In Contrast To Clinton In 1996
In 1996, President Bill Clinton went before the nation and shamed congressional Republicans for shutting down the government. It was his first State of the Union address after two shutdowns that closed the federal government for 28 days, and he made sure GOP lawmakers would regret what they did.
But on Tuesday, in his first State of the Union speech since the 16-day shutdown in October, President Barack Obama took a very different approach. He made only a passing reference to the government shutdown and never pointed the finger directly at anyone.
"For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government," said Obama near the beginning of his address. "It's an important debate -- one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy -- when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States -- then we are not doing right by the American people."
01/28/2014 11:07 PM EST
Exactly Zero Words On Pot, Drug Policy Or Criminal Justice Reform
President Barack Obama didn't mention criminal justice, drug policy or marijuana in his 2014 State of the Union address at all.
Obama recently told the New Yorker he was troubled that "Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Attorney General Eric Holder has identified fixing the broken justice system that disproportionately affects millions of young black men as one of his top priorities. And the administration recently seems to be taking a more lenient stance on drug policy, allowing Colorado and Washington to proceed with their experiments in marijuana legalization.
None of that, however, was in the speech.
Every interest group feels left out when their favorite issue gets excluded from the State of the Union, and marijuana reform advocates are no exception. Tom Angell, co-founder of Marijuana Majority, said he thought it was "shameful" the president couldn't spare a few words.
"There are many ways the president can act to lead us out of this mess without Congress, including commuting the sentences of the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders that are locked up for no good reason," he said in an email. "He should also use the bully pulpit to build the case for repealing mandatory minimum sentences and reforming the failed drug prohibition policies that put too many of our fellow Americans behind bars for too long."
-- Matt Sledge
01/28/2014 11:01 PM EST
Drone Strikes Under 'Prudent Limits' Still Cause Civilian Casualties
President Barack Obama mentioned in his remarks the "prudent limits" he has imposed on U.S. drone strikes, referring to new procedures for the so-called "targeted killing" program laid out in a May 2013 speech.
In Pakistan, at least, those procedures seem to be having some effect: the U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently found that there were no reported civilian casualties from drones in that country in 2013.
Overall, however, drone strike deaths -- including those of suspected militants -- increased in both Pakistan and Yemen in the first six months after the May speech. And 2013 ended on a grisly note for the program, when the U.S. killed up to 12 civilians in a strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy.
"We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence," Obama said Tuesday.
So far, Pakistanis and Yemenis do not seem to be satisfied by the changes to the drone program. Pakistani's interior minister this week blamed a U.S. drone strike for derailing peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and Yemen's parliament approved a resolution after the wedding convoy attack calling for an end to all drone strikes in the country.
-- Matt Sledge