WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America’s middle class in a State of the Union speech that he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year.
Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by issuing a raft of executive orders — a move likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans.
Obama’s orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers and creation of a “starter savings account” to help millions of people save for retirement.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said. “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.”
In a statement reacting to the speech, Sen. Susan Collins said, “While the President has called on both parties to work together to tackle other important issues, I am very concerned that it appears the president is willing to circumvent Congress in an attempt to counteract the frustrating gridlock in Washington. This approach, however, will only serve to heighten partisan tensions and exacerbate the problem.”
Obama’s strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on small-bore initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle-class workers.
Obama defended his controversial health care law, the troubled rollout of which rocked his presidency last October and sent his job approval ratings tumbling to around 40 percent.
“I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” Obama said. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.”
On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he held his fire on the issue, with signs of possible progress developing in recent days among House Republicans.
“Let’s get immigration reform done this year,” he said.
His political objective is to create a narrative for Democrats to use as they seek to head off Republicans eager to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November elections and build on their majority in the House.
The party in control of the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections, but Democrats feel they stand a chance of limiting their losses or even making some gains.
Republicans clambered for some of the same rhetorical ground as Obama in pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor but staked out a different vision for doing so.
“It’s one that champions free markets and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, said in her party’s response to Obama’s speech. “It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable.”
McMorris Rodgers is the first female Republican to give the party response since 2000, when Collins, R-Maine, spoke with Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist.
“Wages have stagnated for decades while the moneyed special interests have gamed the system, gotten rich, and fought tooth and nail to keep it that way,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, in a statement after the speech. “It’s long past time that America’s workers are made a national priority. We need to raise the minimum wage because work should pay.”
“The President laid out concrete proposals that will benefit average, hard working families, like raising the minimum wage,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in a statement after the speech. “Increasing the minimum wage will mean more money in the pockets of families across Maine, money that will then be spent at local businesses, creating and supporting local jobs.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said, “The president delivered an eloquent State of the Union address tonight that I believe properly identified many of the central issues that continue to ail our nation and our economy, chief among them, a struggling middle class. … While I appreciated hearing the president speak about possible tax reform efforts like closing loopholes and lowering rates for businesses, I would have also liked to hear more about other ways in which government can foster a more hospitable environment for economic growth, such as regulatory reform, which has been one of my priorities. We all understand that most rules and regulations protect Americans, but there are also many that are outdated and ineffective, and as a result, only stifle economic growth.”
Difficult fifth year
Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his health care law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about how to respond to Syria’s civil war.
Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words such as “divided,” “troubled” and “deteriorating” to describe the state of the country, the poll showed.
A central theme of the address, Obama’s sixth such annual speech in the House chamber, is addressing income inequality, as middle-class Americans struggle to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery.
Obama will talk up themes from the speech in a two-day road trip starting Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.