December 19, 2014

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State of the Union: Obama calls for year of action, with or without help from Congress

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama looked to revive his second term in a sweeping speech to the nation Tuesday, outlining an agenda that calls for creating jobs and addressing the widening gap between rich and poor.

He offered a mix of new and old ideas in his annual State of the Union address, calling for a “Year of Action” and saying he wants to work with Congress but will act on his own when he can, if necessary.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said in the speech to a nationally televised joint session of Congress. “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.”

Entering his sixth year in office, Obama worked to tie economic woes to a long tide of history rather than his own record. He said that although the U.S. has largely pulled out of the economic recession, the middle class has lost jobs and income from three decades of blows, including shifts in technology and global competition.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” he said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. 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. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

He also strived to break away from Congress, substantively and politically.

Obama said he would:

  • Sign an executive order forcing federal contractors to raise the minimum wage for their low-paid workers — and he challenged Congress to do the same for all workers;
  • Introduce new retirement savings plans with a guaranteed return for workers whose employers do not offer such plans.
  • Host a summit to highlight policies that help working families.
  • Review the federal job training system and work with companies to increase apprenticeships.
  • Cut bureaucratic red tape by improving the efficiency of the federal permitting process.

Despite a host of pressing national security and foreign issues such as U.S. surveillance, Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program, Obama focused overwhelmingly on domestic affairs. He didn’t venture abroad until the final third of his hourlong speech, pointing to the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of this year as a reason for Congress to lift restrictions that prevent the transfer of detainees from the detention camp at Guantanamo and close the camp.

His closing tribute to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, partially paralyzed by a roadside bomb on his 10th deployment to Afghanistan, prompted a sustained standing ovation.

“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit,” Obama said.

Back on domestic issues, Obama said he will continue to push Congress to extend jobless benefits and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for all Americans — a move some Democrats are eager to use to contrast with Republicans on the campaign trail in November.