WASHINGTON - 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.
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday as Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listen.
Declaring 2104 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.
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 under way.
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 controversial 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."
Although 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.
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.
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 to develop and train workers, new incentives to encourage truckers to switch 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: that he would change Washington's hyper-partisanship and that his re-election would clear the way for congressional action on his major initiatives.