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 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 actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted 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 president’s agenda.
“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 at all.”
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.
He did, however, renew appeals for actions that still await congressional approval. He called for Congress to give him the authority to speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal held up by Democratic opposition.
On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he tempered his criticism of Republicans who have held up the law, with signs of possible progress emerging in recent days among House Republicans.
Obama also held back from 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.
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