Obama: ‘Reverse these tides’ of inequality, stalled mobility

Obama's State of the Union was a call to help those still struggling, despite economic growth at top

The president’s planned takeaway for the nation: “Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.”
Larry Downing/Reuters

President Barack Obama vowed to confront income inequality and stalled upward mobility in the U.S. during his State of the Union address Tuesday, warning that he is prepared to bypass Congress to “reverse these tides.”

Expanding on America's opportunity gap — an issue that may form a large part of his legacy — Obama used the address to make an unambiguous call to help those are struggling to make ends meet.

“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 said.

In contrast, “those at the top have never done better,” he added, pointing at four years of economic growth, corporate profits and rising stock prices.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead,” he said.

The president called for 2014 to be “a year of action” and stated that “wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“America does not stand still — and neither will I,” he said.

In remarks that lasted for just over an hour and was interspersed with 77 rounds of applause, Obama set out his intention to work with Congress when he can, but to circumvent it if he must.

Still, he suggested that there was scope for greater bipartisanship, despite bitter divides in Congress.

In the speech he outlined a few domestic legislative priorities for the year ahead that he thought were especially achievable.

On immigration reform, where analysts and legislators have indicated that a bipartisan bill might yet have a chance of passing in 2014, he again called on Congress to fix a "broken" system

He also forcefully backed up his message of turning the tide on economic stagnation by urging lawmakers to restore the unemployment insurance for the 1.6 million people who lost it after Congress let them expire last month.

“We can help Americans return to the workforce faster by reforming unemployment insurance so that it’s more effective in today’s economy,” he said.

But as was made clear in the buildup to the speech from senior advisers, Obama laid out specific proposals his administration will take to bypass the partially Republican-controlled Congress, which saw so many of his 2013 goals unrealized.

Resorting to executive actions to implement policy outside of the usual Congressional route is not something new, but it is a tactic that Obama increasingly used to enact policy outside of the legislative branch.

In the past two years, he has used such methods to prevent the deportation of younger immigrants with threatened legal statuses, ratcheted up federal authority to place tougher restrictions against corporate polluters and instructed his attorney general to stop defending federal statutes related to both gay marriage and drug policy.

Obama said he would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contractors, a move that doesn’t need congressional approval.

Click for more on the president's annual policy speech

He hoped that the targeted move on wages would act as a prelude to a more comprehensive effort making its way through Congress in the form of the Harkin-Miller legislation that would make that rate the minimum wage for all workers.

In calling for the increase in wage, Obama called out the example of Costco, a company that has successfully demonstrated that high profits and relatively high worker wages are not mutually exclusive.

The president hailed a massive growth of the nation’s energy industry, which has seen domestic production rapidly increase during his presidency, while saying that it had been tempered by a diversification of productions methods that had lowered the country’s carbon footprint.

He emphasized the latter points, saying sternly that “climate change is a fact,” a line that was sure to rankle some on the Republican side who have publicly staked out a position against tackling climate change if it adversely impacts the economy.

On education, Obama called for a concerted effort to bolster Pre-K programs nationwide and increase funding.

He called the inequality of pay between men and women a national “embarrassment” and declared that when “women succeed America succeeds.”

Despite a disastrous roll out out last fall of his landmark health care law, a topic that has drawn the ire of Republicans and which led them to shutter the federal government for 16 days in October, Obama defended it vigorously and called it a resounding victory for the American people.

The speech had much less focus on foreign policy, a topic that has largely been drowned out by the bipartisan emphasis on economic matters as being the overarching national priority, possibly because of its resonance with voters ahead of 2014 midterm elections.

But the president did mark out some space on a few areas abroad that the administration has trumpeted as particular bright spots, particular in efforts of diplomacy.

Obama hailed the recent international diplomatic efforts over Iran’s nuclear program, calling the recent interim deal to put curbs on the controversial program an achievement borne of “American diplomacy, backed by pressure.”

He invoked historical precedent, using the example of the Cold War to give credence to his message.

“If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today,” he said.

He urged Congress to refrain from instituting a new round of sanctions on Iran while diplomatic efforts were ongoing, saying the current efforts to achieve a long-term deal were necessary "for the sake of our national security."

He spoke more generally about the country's future security efforts, saying America "must move off a permanent war footing."

To that end, Obama hailed U.S. efforts in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, praising the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops and pointing to success in defending the country against terrorism.

Though he has long called for the closure of the prison as Guantanamo Bay and been stifled by Congressional opposition, he again urged for a final shuttering of the detainee site.

In response to the president's address, House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who delivered the official Republican response to the State of the Union, said that "the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder."

She urged the country to embrace a Republican vision for the country that embraced free markets over government intervention.

She said that the vision from her party is one that "trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you." 

"Because our mission – not only as Republicans, but as Americans, is to once again to ensure that we are not bound by where we come from, but empowered by what we can become," she said.

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