Going into a year likely to be dominated by the midterm election politics, President Barack Obama vowed he wouldn’t wait for a stubborn Congress and said he will take executive action on a host of issues without lawmaker approval.
“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 said during his State of the Union address Tuesday in front of a joint session of Congress.
Obama declared that he would lead by example for governors and mayors by signing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees of new federal contractors, an action he hopes state and local leaders will follow. The executive order combined two dominant themes of the speech: highlighting income inequality and Obama’s willingness to go it alone if Congress does not act.
“To every mayor, governor, and state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act, Americans will support you if you take this on,” Obama said.
Urging broad action from Congress, Obama urged: “So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”
At that point in the speech, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who are sponsoring legislation to increase the wage to $10.10, shook hands and smiled.
Obama announced several other executive actions, including increasing fuel efficiency standards and several partnerships with state and local governments to push more green power. He also announced a new “starter retirement savings account” through employers to be offered through Roth IRA accounts and would be backed by the federal government and directed Vice President Joe Biden to conduct a “government-wide review of federal training programs” to increase job readiness.
The president was also clear on the leading national security issue: the negotiations with Iran over easing sanctions to prompt the country to drop its nuclear ambitions.
“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible, but let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it,” Obama said to a bipartisan group of senators seeking stricter sanctions against Iran. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed. If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. 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.”
Obama called on Congress to extend jobless benefits for nearly 2 million Americans that lost those benefits and to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to workers without children.
He further seemed critical of his own years in office that saw corporate profits rise while regular wages were stagnant.
“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” Obama said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. 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 at all.”
Appealing to his base, Obama called for passing Workplace Fairness Act to allow women to have more legal tools to fight pay discrimination, while also demanding the enactment of Employment Non Discrimination Act to provide federal workplace protection for gays and lesbians. He also returned to familiar themes of combating climate change through greater environmental regulation and a comprehensive immigration reform bill to bestow legal status on the some 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
“I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air,” Obama said of climate change. “The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And 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.”
Even after several high-profile failures such as Solyndra, Obama called for greater government help for the solar panel industry.
“It’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar, too,” the president said. “Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”
Obama, noting that his universal pre-K proposal last year didn’t pass, said he would work with states to implement a version of it until Congress stepped forward.
“In the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait. So just as we worked with states to reform our schools, this year, we’ll invest in new partnerships with states and communities across the country in a race to the top for our youngest children and as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”