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Obama promises a dramatic ‘year of action’ — with or without help of Congress

Insists U.S. must ‘reverse the tides’ of inequality

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Provoking Republican lawmakers with an in-your-face vow to bypass Congress if necessary, President Obama said Tuesday night that he would use his executive authority on a dozen issues including income inequality and job training to spur "a year of action" for his stalled agenda.

"America does not stand still — and neither will I," Mr. Obama said in the annual State of the Union address. "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."

In the Republican response, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state said the GOP has a more hopeful vision for the nation that empowers people rather than the government.

The president embarked on his go-it-alone strategy even before he started his speech, with the White House announcing a dozen executive actions that the president already has taken or will take in the coming weeks, including a move to create a class of "starter" retirement savings accounts available through employers.

Another of his actions will raise the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per hour to $10.10. The Labor Department said about 16,000 federal employees in 2012 received the federal minimum wage.

That move was intended to pressure lawmakers to pass a broader increase in the minimum wage for some 21 million workers.

"Give America a raise," Mr. Obama challenged lawmakers.

The president's push for executive actions immediately raised the ire of Republicans. Speaker John A. Boehner, who opposes a minimum wage increase on the grounds that it would slow economic growth, criticized the executive action.

"We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us," said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "I have to remind him we do have a Constitution. And the Congress writes the laws, and the president's job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this he's going to run into a brick wall."

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, accused Mr. Obama of "acting like a child."

The president delivered his address coming off his worst year in office, in which his agenda was sidetracked by scandals and the error-filled launch of Obamacare. With lawmakers preparing for pivotal midterm elections that could further complicate the president's agenda, Mr. Obama called for progress on unfinished business such as immigration reform.

"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together," Mr. Obama said. "That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations."

Mr. Obama defended his beleaguered Obamacare health care law but didn't mention the program's troubled start in October or the continuing concerns about it. He warned the GOP not to attempt any more futile measures to repeal the law.

"The first 40 [bills] were plenty," he said.

The president said he wants to use all the tools at his disposal to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor in America.

"After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better," Mr. Obama said. "But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. Our job is to reverse these tides."

Citing the lowest unemployment rate since he took office and a rebounding housing market, Mr. Obama said this year "can be a breakthrough year for America."

Sour public mood

Mr. Obama's rosy forecast for the economy is in contrast with the mood of the public about the state of the recovery. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesdayfound that 68 percent of Americans believe they are not better off than when Mr. Obama became president.

In the survey, 39 percent said the country is in worse shape since Mr. Obama took office, and 63 percent said the country is on the wrong track.

The president's move to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, was more of a political statement than an effort to jump-start the economy. Because the order applies only to future contracts, it would affect only a small portion of the estimated 2 million workers who fall under the definition of federal contractors, as opposed to the 21 million workers nationwide who would benefit from a full increase in the hourly wage.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, who opposes a minimum wage increase on the grounds that it would slow economic growth, criticized the executive action Tuesday.

"We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us," said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "I have to remind him we do have a Constitution. And the Congress writes the laws, and the president's job is to execute the laws faithfully. And if he tries to ignore this, he's going to run into a brick wall."

Use of executive initiatives is the latest White House effort to move ahead on Mr. Obama's agenda without congressional action. The president has used his executive power for action on climate change and on immigration, preventing the deportations under certain conditions of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally.

Flexing executive power is nothing new, and Mr. Obama hasn't used his presidential pen as often as his predecessors. Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush signed 213 and 173 orders, respectively, in their first terms, compared with 147 for Mr. Obama. Democrat Bill Clinton issued 200 executive orders in his first term.

New White House counsel John Podesta, an advocate of executive authority, said Mr. Obama has "warmed up" to the idea.

"And I think you'll see that across a wide range of topics, including retirement security, moving forward on his climate change and energy transformation agenda," Mr. Podesta told NPR.

Frustrated by Republicans' resistance to his agenda, Mr. Obama also has taken unilateral steps to try to improve the nation's employment situation, including securing a pledge by a group of major corporations not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in hiring decisions.

Mr. Obama convened CEOs from across the country this month in an effort to persuade them to take "a second look" at hiring the long-term unemployed, who have emerged as a particular sore spot in the sluggish job market.

Several companies signed a pledge with the White House, including Bank of America, Xerox, AT&T and Lockheed Martin, stating that they are "committed to inclusive hiring practices."

Mr. Obama also is pushing Congress to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, legislation that would cost about $26 billion over a full year. Federal unemployment assistance expired in December for about 1.3 million people, and lawmakers haven't agreed on how long to extend the benefits or how to pay for them.

Mr. Obama will travel Wednesday and Thursday to promote his initiatives, with stops planned in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

The broader initiatives outlined by Mr. Obama, including increasing the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education programs, need congressional approval. Both proposals stalled after Mr. Obama first announced them in last year's State of the Union address.

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