Friday, April 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Obama vows to flex presidential powers in speech

President Obama touched only briefly on foreign policy, noting the pullback of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and reiterating his threat to veto any sanctions on Iran even as talks are under way.
President Obama touched only briefly on foreign policy, noting the pullback of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and reiterating his threat to veto any sanctions on Iran even as talks are under way. J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AP
President Obama touched only briefly on foreign policy, noting the pullback of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and reiterating his threat to veto any sanctions on Iran even as talks are under way. Gallery: Obama vows to flex presidential powers in speech
WASHINGTON - Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President 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 that included increasing the minimum wage for some federal contract workers and making it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.

"America does not stand still - and neither will I," Obama declared in his annual 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 focus on executive actions was greeted with shouts of "Do it!" from many members of his party.

For Obama, the address was also aimed at convincing 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 are 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 last 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. Obama'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 underway.

In an emotional high point, Obama singled out Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger from Gilbert, Ariz., who was a guest of Michelle Obama. Remsburg, who was nearly killed in Afghanistan during one of his 10 deployments, rose slowly from his seat and was greeted by long and thunderous applause from the president and lawmakers.

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's speech drew an eclectic mix of visitors to the House chamber. Among those sitting with the first lady were two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player. House Speaker John A. Boehner brought business owners from his home state of Ohio who say Obama's health-care overhaul is hurting. Willie Robertson, a star of the TV 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 that 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.

Obama 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.

His 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 reelection would break the Republican "fever" and clear the way for congressional action on major initiatives.

Julie Pace Associated Press
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected