WASHINGTON – With a largely uncooperative, highly-partisan Congress headed into a mid-term election, President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that he will have ‘a year of action’ by expanding economic opportunity through executive orders and other action that do not require legislative approval.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said in a speech that lasted a little longer than an hour. “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.”
Repeating many of the themes he sounded in his State of the Union speech a year ago – and having seen congressional inaction on most of them – a frustrated Barack Obama promised to be more aggressive in using the power of the presidency.
In glowing review of his first five years in office, Obama said, “Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years. Our deficits – cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.”
He continued, “…The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress. For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But 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.”
A major theme of the president’s speech was providing expanded opportunity for all Americans – an opportunity to get a job, to earn fair wages, to get an education and to have access to affordable health care.
“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. 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.”
Unlike past State of the Union speeches, Obama did not call for higher tax rates on high-income earners. He also toned down his rhetoric on income inequality from a month ago when he called it “the defining challenge of our time” and referred to a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility.”
A recent report by Oxfam, a London based organization that seeks to eradicate poverty, found that the wealth of 1 percent of the richest people in the world ($110 trillion) is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, collected data that shows the top fifth of the U.S. population receives 66 percent of tax-expenditure benefits, the middle 60 percent of the population receives slightly more than 31 percent and the bottom fifth receives just 2.8 percent of tax-expenditure benefits. The top 1 percent of the population alone receives 23.9 percent of tax-expenditure benefits.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the “economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” And even larger margin – 65 percent – believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased over the past 10 years.
But instead of getting into what his Republican critics like to call a class war, the president framed the issue Tuesday night through the lens of a lack of progress for working-class Americans.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” President Obama said. “That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”
In an action on Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.
To raise the minimum wage beyond federal contractors, as Obama has been urging for more than a year, he will need the support of Congress. He will also need cooperation from the House and Senate to act on other issues such as immigration, extending unemployment benefits, tax reform and expanding pre-K education.
Although White House officials are predicting some progress on farm legislation and immigration, they recognize that partisan politics traditionally grow even more partisan in a mid-term election, especially during a president’s second term. Consequently, the administration is advancing a series of modest initiatives, including:
Directing the Treasury Department to create a starter retirement savings account, called “myRA”;
Hosting a White House summit on working families;
Having Vice President Joe Biden lead a review of the federal job training system;
Streamlining federal regulations covering construction of manufacturing factories that rely on natural gas and
Convening a group of CEOs to solicit their ideas on how best to get unemployed workers back into the job market.
On CNN Tuesday night, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama for taking so long to use the authority he has to issue executive orders, which are presidential directives that interpret the constitution and federal laws without needing the approval of Congress.
According to the National Archives and The American Presidency Project, President Obama has issued 168 executive orders. His 147 during his first term was the fewest by a president in more than 100 years. By contrast, in their first terms, Ronald Reagan issued 213, Bill Clinton 200 and George W. Bush 173.
Obama defenders say many of his executive orders have been far reaching, delaying enforcement of certain sections of the Affordable Care Act, federal recognition of same-sex marriages and delaying deportation of some illegal immigrants.
At a White House briefing with a small group of reporters Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official responded to critics who contend that President Obama would be more effective if he socialized more with House Republicans. But that’s been impossible with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, the official said.
“They said he should schmooze a little bit more, if he would just go play golf with them,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t want to be seen playing golf with him. They don’t want to be seen having dinner with him. They don’t want to work with the president and they’ve told us that every way they know how.”
By George E. Curry