WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama set off Wednesday on a four-city tour to pound home his annual State of the Union message, a pep talk to a pessimistic nation, a call to action by a divided Congress to reduce income inequality and a promise to sidestep legislative gridlock.
Obama maintained his recent focus on the vast gap between the richest and regular Americans that has only grown worse in the aftermath of the Great Recession and near collapse of the economy in 2008.
Obama, speaking in what is traditionally a president’s biggest speech of the year, was trying as well to set the stage for Democrat victories in the November midterm congressional elections at a time when his popularity has fallen dramatically despite a steadily improving economy. He is particularly dogged by stubbornly high unemployment.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” the president said in his nationally televised State of the Union address to a packed chamber.
“So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have managed to stymie most of the president’s legislative agenda since they re-took the House of Representatives in 2010. Their leader, Speaker John Boehner, was quick to dismiss Obama’s plans for executive action.
“The president must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the authority he has doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy,” he said.
Obama has acknowledged he faces constitutional limits in acting without Congress, but realizes he still faces a wall of Republican opposition. He nevertheless renewed his calls for forward motion on his legislative agenda of creating jobs, overhauling immigration laws, combating climate change and more. Absent Republican compromises, Obama declared he would rely on executive orders where and when he could.
From Boehner down, there was little evidence they intended to move Obama’s way.
“Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder,” Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in the Republicans’ official response.
The State of the Union address to Congress, a tradition begun by President George Washington, was replete with all the political pageantry that Washington can muster. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her arms wide to give a grinning Obama a huge hug as he walked past her on the way to the speaker’s rostrum, where he kicked the sixth year of his presidency into high gear.
The galleries ringing the floor were crowded with guests, also part of the traditional setting. But in the evening’s most stirring moment the longest – and most bipartisan – applause went to one of them. Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, gravely injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, acknowledged the cheers from his seat next to first lady Michelle Obama.
By contrast, Obama’s mention of the health care overhaul that bears his name brought cheers from Democrats and silence from Republicans, who have spent the past three years trying to repeal a program they loathe.
“Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans,” Obama said of repeated House Republican attempts to kill the law.
While domestic issues dominated the speech, Obama also warned Congress that he would veto any sanctions bill that threatens to derail nuclear talks with Iran, even as he acknowledged that the negotiations may not succeed.
Obama said efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program will be difficult and if they fail, he will call for more sanctions. “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.”
On Syria, he pledged “to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.”
Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. He said, however, that a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.
Obama said the United States “will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific” and called the alliance with Europe “the strongest the world has ever known.” Regarding the turmoil in Ukraine, he said “we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.”
Obama voiced his determination to close the income gap between rich and poor as he tries to reverse a big decline in his approval among Americans. An AP-GfK poll this month found 45 percent of those surveyed approved of Obama and 53 percent disapproved.
That’s much worse than a year ago, when 54 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved.
Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings plummet in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening income gap as a symptom of Obama’s economic policies.
McMorris Rodgers, in her Republican response, said her party “champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”
Obama has some hope of winning support for an immigration overhaul, as Republicans try to build support among the country’s growing Hispanic population ahead of the election.
But the White House sees a robust rollout of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Obama still wields power in the sixth year of his presidency.
Obama is visiting a steel plant near Pittsburgh and a Costco wholesale store in suburban Maryland to tout the new measures Wednesday.