Obama flexes executive power in measured State of Union address

In a State of the Union address less partisan and pointed than many expected, President Obama on Tuesday said he was eager to work with Congress but willing to go it alone.

Obama promised to unleash a torrent of new executive actions after a difficult year in which his agenda languished in Congress and his approval ratings plummeted.

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But he did so in a genial tone, and with a speech that included praise for some of his longtime foes.

Obama used Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) humble background as the “son of a barkeep” as a touchstone for his call to improve economic mobility for the poor and middle class.

And he credited Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his support of expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The White House had foreshadowed that Obama’s address would emphasize a new willingness by the president to use executive action, and Obama promised a dozen actions in the next year, including the creation of new “starter” savings accounts and a hike in the minimum wage for federal contractors.

Throughout the speech, the president stressed that the government should work to provide “opportunity for all,” by addressing head-on the problems of income inequality and waning mobility.

Those proposals, along with other calls to Obama’s liberal base, were intended to embolden Democrats ahead of this year’s midterm elections but were delivered in a measured tone.

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and 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.”

The White House decided on that theme after speaking to a wide swath of people on policy, including lawmakers up for reelection in 2014. The message is one White House officials believe Democrats can campaign on in November.

Obama talked up a strengthening economy at the beginning of his address, and also poked congressional Republicans over last fall’s government shutdown while calling on both parties to work together.

“When that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people,” Obama said.

Obama asked Congress to join him in making 2014 “a year of action,” an acknowledgement that many of his executive proposals are smaller initiatives and that he needs Congress to go big.

“In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together,” he said. “Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want: for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”

Obama specifically called for congressional action on a slate of legislative priorities the White House argues are essential for a still-lagging economy.

Chief among them was immigration reform, which Obama argued should be fixed to strengthen the economy and create thousands of new jobs.

On that issue, Obama stopped short of mentioning recent efforts to push a bill in the House, in a move senior administration officials said was done intentionally to give Boehner and other Republican lawmakers space to maneuver.

Earlier in the day, Republican condemned Obama’s promised executive actions as an effort to create an imperial presidency, while Democrats staunchly defended Obama’s ideas as legitimate and necessary uses of executive authority in the face of GOP obstruction.

Obama prodded Congress to expand the popular Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides benefits to low-wage workers, and renewed his calls to reform the corporate and investment tax codes and further invest in infrastructure.

He earned bipartisan applause by imploring employers to "do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode."

And Obama urged Congress to increase minimum wage, telling lawmakers to back a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), to lift minimum wage to $10.10. 

“Say yes,” Obama said, to applause for Democrats. “Give America a raise.”

The issue is one that appeals directly to his political base, who has been pushing the White House to help raise minimum wage. 

Taking income inequality a step further, Obama said he was taking it upon himself to direct the Treasury Department to create a new way Americans can start retirement saving in a plan called "MyRA," a savings bond which he said would encourage middle class Americans to "build a nest egg."

Obama said the plan "guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in."

The president and his senior aides decided on the populist theme in November. 

While White House officials maintained the strategy was born out of a sincere desire to advocate for poor and middle class Americans, they admitted they wanted to demonstrate their commitment to act to a public frustrated by stagnation in Washington.

Obama will take the message on the road with a campaign-style tour beginning on Wednesday, when he travels to a steel mill near Pittsburgh and visits a Costco in Maryland. At Costco, Obama will highlight the megastore’s practice of raising wages on its own and urge business leaders to follow that example. On Thursday, the president will travel to a gas engine factory in Wisconsin and a high school in Tennessee.

While there, Obama will tout some of the public-private education efforts unveiled in the speech, including a new apprenticeship program and a federal grant program designed to encourage schools to redesign their curriculums with a new emphasis on technical and trade skills. Obama also announced that he had appointed Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs.

The focus on executive action and the economy harkened back to Obama’s election-year State of the Union speech in 2012, though White House officials insisted this was different than the “We can’t wait” strategy launched that year and stressed that Obama did not intend this speech to be overly partisan.

One senior administration official said the 2012 effort was done as a way to shame Congress into acting but argued that this year’s approach is different because it highlights how Obama will be governing over the coming months. 

Still, the speech included some red meat for the liberal base. Obama proposed new fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks, directed his administration to cut carbon pollution through new regulations, and declared flatly that “climate change is a fact.”

“When our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” Obama said.

Obama didn't make mention of the botched healthcare rollout — which mired much of his agenda in the tail end of 2013 — but he did seize the moment before the prime-time audience to urge people to sign up for ObamaCare.

“Moms, get your kids to sign up,” he said. “Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application. It will give her some peace of mind. Plus, she'll appreciate hearing from you.”

Updated at 10:57 p.m.