* Obama poised to bypass Congress on some policy initiatives
* President aims to strengthen America's middle class
* In response, Republicans criticize Obama's approach
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Jan 28 President Barack Obama vowed
on Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his
own to bolster America's middle class in a State of the Union
address 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 unveiling a series of
executive orders and decisions - moves likely to inflame already
tense relations between the Democratic president and
While his rhetoric was high flying, Obama's actions were
relatively modest, collectively amounting to an outpouring of
frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans
in control of the House of Representatives and able to slow the
"I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama told the
lawmakers gathered for the annual speech. "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."
Obama's orders included a wage hike for federal contract
workers, creation of a "starter savings account" to help
millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish
new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
He said he was driven to act by the widening gap between
rich and poor and the fact that while the stock market has
soared, average wages have barely budged.
"Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "Upward mobility has
stalled. 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
SALUTE TO WOUNDED SOLDIER
In an emotional, flag-waving finish to his speech, Obama
drew a standing ovation from people of all political stripes by
saluting the heroism of Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. The
Army Ranger survived a roadside blast in Afghanistan and has
recovered to the point where he attended the speech, seated next
to first lady Michelle Obama.
"Like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory
Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit," Obama said.
In a nod to bipartisanship, Obama drew applause with a brief
tribute to John Boehner, "the son of a barkeeper" who rose to
become speaker of the House of Representatives and the top
Republican in Congress. Boehner gave Obama a thumbs-up.
Obama's political objective in the address was 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 these so-called mid-term elections, but Democrats feel
they stand a chance of limiting their losses or even making some
To that end, Obama drew loud applause by underscoring in
particular the economic plight of women, who he noted make up
about half the U.S. workforce but still earn 77 cents for every
dollar a man makes. Women voters helped re-elect Obama in 2012.
"This year, let's all come together - Congress, the White
House and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street - to give
every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I firmly
believe when women succeed, America succeeds," he said.
Obama's governing strategy means he has scaled back
ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more
on smaller-scale initiatives that can reduce income inequality
and create more opportunities for middle-class workers.
The wage hike for federal contract workers to $10.10 per
hour, for example, will mean a pay raise for only about 560,000
federal contract workers.
That's only a tiny fraction of the number who would see
bigger paychecks under stalled legislation to increase the
Some 3.6 million workers were paid the federal minimum wage
Obama spent a sizable part of his speech hammering away at
issues that have long been debated but remain stalled, like
closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He renewed an appeal for Congress to give him the authority
to speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal
held up by Democratic opposition.
And on one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform,
Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul. He
tempered his criticism of Republicans who have held up the
legislation, with signs of possible progress emerging in recent
days among House Republicans.
Obama stopped short of taking a step that immigration reform
advocates have called on him to take. He did not take executive
action to freeze the deportations of parents of children brought
to the United States illegally.
"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.
'REFIGHTING OLD BATTLES'
On healthcare, the issue that rocked his presidency and
caused many Americans to lose confidence in him, Obama defended
the overhaul law he signed in 2010 but did not make it a
centerpiece, urging Americans to sign up for medical insurance
coverage by a March 31 deadline.
He challenged Republicans to come up with a viable
alternative instead of repeating past failed attempts to repeal
"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on
the merits of this law. But I know that the American people
aren't interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you
have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and
increase choice - tell America what you'd do differently," he
Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, found Obama's
speech overall to be rather restrained compared to the usual
partisan rhetoric in Washington.
"His language was mostly devoid of overt partisan
provocation. On policy, he gave little ground to the
Republicans, but he did little to confront them either," said
Galston, who had worked for Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Obama said nothing about whether he would approve the
long-delayed Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that
Instead, Obama spoke passionately about the need to tackle
climate change, a statement that could foreshadow more executive
actions to reduce carbon emissions this year.
Obama said, "The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't
happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along
the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."
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.
U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of
the House Republican Caucus, said in her party's official
response to Obama's speech that Republicans want to rely on free
markets and trust people to make their own decisions, not have
the government make decisions for them.
"The president talks a lot about income inequality, but the
real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality," she
said, videotaped seated on a couch in a living room setting.
With three years left in office, Obama is trying to recover
from a difficult past year in office, when immigration and gun
control legislation failed to advance in Congress and the
rollout of the key provisions of his healthcare law stumbled.
Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC
News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68
percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or
worse off since Obama took office. People used words like
"divided," "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state
of the country, the poll showed.
Obama dwelled mostly on domestic issues in his hour-long
address, but warned Congress he would veto any effort to
increase economic sanctions on Iran as he tries to reach a
comprehensive deal with Tehran to ensure it does not obtain a
nuclear weapons capability.
A CNN poll found that 44 percent of respondents viewed
Obama's address very positively while 32 percent felt somewhat
positively about it and 22 percent were negative toward it.
Obama will talk up the economic themes from the speech in a
two-day road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops
in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.