By Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar McClatchy Washington Bureau
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. The executive order would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour for employees who work for companies involved in future government contracts. White House officials said they hoped it would spark other employers to follow suit.
Obama said he also wants lawmakers to expand the earned income tax credit, remove retirement tax breaks for the wealthiest while expanding them for the middle class, give women more tools to fight discrimination and protect gay workers.
He again pushed lawmakers to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, which he said could grow the economy $1 trillion over two decades and create thousands of jobs.
The Democratic-controlled Senate last year passed the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation. The Republican-led House of Representatives won’t consider the bill, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, until the borders are secure.
But Republican leaders in the House, mindful of the changing face of the U.S. electorate, are expected to introduce their own guidelines later this week for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants.
Obama opens his sixth year in the White House after a tumultuous year that prompted some of the worst job approval ratings since he took office. A divided Congress is already turning much of its focus to the November election, and Obama has just three years left in office to make his mark.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest-ranking woman in the House Republican leadership, offered her party’s response, blaming Obama’s policies for stagnant wages and long term unemployment — and not 30 years of economic trends.
“Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one,” she said. “Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder. Republicans have plans to close the gap.”
And she took a swipe at Obama’s signature health care law, saying it’s not working.
“We’ve all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn’t expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have,” she said.
Obama included a plug for his embattled health care law, saying it’s provided coverage to millions despite the chaotic website rollout and his broken promise that Americans could keep their insurance plans.
“Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions,” he said, chiding House Republicans for their crusade to repeal the health care law.
Much of the applause fell along partisan lines, with Vice President Joe Biden sitting behind Obama, smiling broadly. House Speaker John Boehner watched impassively, but broke into a wide grin when Obama said the American dream explained “how the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House.”
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was named the “designated survivor,” the Cabinet official who was asked to skip the speech and watch from a distance in the event of an emergency.
Obama also addressed combating climate change, saying, “The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.” But he didn’t mention Keystone, the controversial pipeline that would bring Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast and is hotly opposed by environmentalists.
He said his administration would set new fuel-efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles and propose new incentives for medium- and heavy-duty trucks to use alternative fuels such as natural gas. And he said the administration is developing new environmental standards for oil and gas drilling on public land.
He told lawmakers that he will pay for his new, ongoing initiatives while supporting additional deficit reduction.
Obama will take his case to the public, starting Wednesday at a Costco in Maryland, where he’ll make a pitch for raising the minimum wage, which the retail giant has endorsed in the past. He’ll also talk up his starter retirement savings accounts in Pittsburgh later Wednesday. He’ll continue the campaign-style pitch review in Milwaukee and at a Nashville, Tenn., high school on Thursday.
Obama will host an online chat from the White House on Friday. He’ll also be joined there by a number of chief executive officers to tout an initiative to secure commitments from major corporations not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring.
He called on a reluctant Congress to give him special trade-promotion authority known as “fast track,” which he wants in order to limit congressional debate and force quick votes on a big new trade pact. But even some Democrats oppose the measure.
And he renewed a threat to veto legislation that calls for more sanctions against Iran, saying it could hurt negotiations with Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
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