David Jackson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - President Obama told Congress during Tuesday's State of the Union Address that he wants to work with them on plans to improve the nation's economy -- but he also vowed to take executive action if necessary.
While asking Congress for legislation on an immigration bill and a minimum wage hike, Obama also announced a variety of executive orders, including one to increase the minimum wage for some federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
"America does not stand still, and neither will I," Obama said. "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."
One theme of the speech: Income inequality. Obama promoted the idea that the federal government can help create economic opportunity through job training and college education programs.
And he defended his embattled health care law, telling Republican critics: "If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice -- tell America what you'd do differently."
In the formal Republican response to Obama's speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said that "too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder."
The health care law in particular is slowing any economic recovery, Republicans said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his state has seen "restricted access to doctors and hospitals, lost jobs, lower wages, fewer choices, (and) higher costs."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama should have used his speech to promote issues like free trade, the Keystone oil pipeline, and House GOP jobs bills that are pending in the Democratic-run Senate.
Boehner also warned Obama against executive overreach, saying that "we're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us."
In pledging to work with Congress, Obama called for a "year of action" and again asked House Republicans to pass a bill to "fix our broken immigration system." The Democratic-run Senate passed an immigration bill last year.
In urging Congress to increase the minimum wage for all Americans, Obama told lawmakers: "Say yes. Give America a raise." Some Republicans have said a minimum wage hike will discourage employers from hiring more people.
Another Obama request of Congress: an extension of unemployment insurance that lapsed at the turn of the year.
Obama also announced an executive order creating a new savings program for workers whose employers don't offer retirement plans.
Before vowing to assert executive authority, Obama said he is offering plans "to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you."
Obama cited the rancorous politics of recent times. He said it threatens economic recovery, and has even prevented the government from carrying out its most basic functions, alluding to the partial government shutdown in October and recent disputes over raising the debt ceiling.
The president also praised a recent budget deal as a sign that the parties can work together.
At one point, Obama paid tribute to both Boehner -- and to himself -- by saying the story of America is "how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House," and "how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth."
Touching on concerns that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, Obama said that "corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher," but the wages of average workers "have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.
"Our job is to reverse these trends," Obama said.
That includes redressing inequality for women, Obama said, endorsing equal pay for equal work, and help for child rearing. Referring to the television drama about life in the 1960s, Obama said that, "it is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."
Obama also discussed his energy and climate change policies. On the latter topic, Obama said that "climate change is a fact" and lawmakers should be able to tell their grandchildren they built "a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy."
Echoing a major part of last year's State of the Union speech, Obama again called for new gun control laws. None of the proposals he made last year passed.
The State of the Union also gave Obama a chance to outline his foreign policy agenda. He discussed the winding down of combat operations in Afghanistan that end late this year, and ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Obama again vowed to veto any congressional bill that slaps new sanctions on Iran, saying they would derail ongoing negotiations with Tehran. Obama said those talks, while difficult and uncertain, are the best chance to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make nuclear weapons.
The president also mentioned proposed changes to drone use and National Security Agency surveillance programs. He again called for the closing of the terrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a pledge he made during the 2008 campaign.
Referring to the recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, Obama said, "America must move off a permanent war footing."
Hanging over this particular State of the Union speech: congressional and state elections coming in less than 10 months.
Over the past year, Obama has seen his approval ratings fall to percentages in the low 40s in the wake of problems with health care and an uneven economic recovery.
As with previous State of the Union addresses, this one features guests invited to illustrate some of the president's polices, such as health care, immigration, gay rights and responses to national tragedies.
Obama's guests today include two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, openly gay basketball player Jason Collins, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the governor of Kentucky and an immigrant brought illegally to the United States as a child.
Congressional Republicans will also have guests, including some who say they have lost coverage or been forced to pay more because of the new health care law.
In the days ahead, Obama will follow up his speech with traditional post-State of the Union trips to try to sell the ideas he discusses.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the president will speak at a Costco store in Lanham, Md., near Washington, D.C.; a steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa., near Pittsburgh; a General Electric gas engine facility in Waukesha, Wis., near Milwaukee; and McGavock High School in Nashville.
Senator Burr's Statement on the State Of The Union Address:
"Tonight, President Obama touched on many issues, most notably on income inequality. But it's as if the President, five years into his term in office, still doesn't understand our country and what makes it work. The greatest achievement of our modern, free society is not the promise of equal outcomes -- history is littered with the wrecks of nations that tried -- but rather equality of opportunity. Unfortunately, the President's policies are destroying opportunities for families and businesses across the country in the misguided belief that tearing down some will benefit all."
"The greatest source of opportunity is economic growth. The surest path to economic growth is to free our economy from the ineffective policies that the President has put into place over the five years he has been in office. President Obama has added more debt than all previous presidents combined. Unemployment, and underemployment, remain high. If you count Americans who have stopped looking for work and dropped out of the workforce entirely, it's near record highs. And the income inequality that the President speaks about is higher under his administration than at any point since before the Great Depression. By any measure, our country is less free, more in debt, less respected abroad, and facing a future where prosperity and opportunity are reserved for the few."
"It is my wish that the President would stop looking for someone to blame, and instead spend time thinking about how we can reach bipartisan solutions to the issues he laid out this evening. I look forward to the President reaching out for suggestions as how to change the unsustainable path our nation is currently on."
Senator Kay Hagan's Statement on the State Of The Union Address
"My top priority this year continues to be creating jobs and growing our economy, and it was important for the President to emphasize efforts that will help out-of-work North Carolinians get back on their feet. One of the best ways to strengthen our economy is ensuring our kids are getting the education they need to prepare them for the future, and I was honored to have Karyn Dickerson, North Carolina's Teacher of the Year, as my guest tonight. The chance to spend time with Karyn today and hear about the creative ways she's working with her students reinforced the importance of supporting North Carolina's teachers, who have helped our state lead the way in education for years.
"I'm proud that when I was writing the budget in the State Senate, we raised teacher pay by a total of 21 percent. Now, as a member of the U.S. Senate Education Committee, I have been working to provide teachers with technological tools to bring our classrooms into the 21st century as the Senate works to reform No Child Left Behind. As Karyn and teachers across North Carolina try to foster creativity and innovation in their students, access to technology is critical in preparing our students for the challenges that lie ahead.
"But too many North Carolinians are still struggling to find work as our economy continues to recover, and we should be helping arm them with the skills they need to land a job. That's why I was pleased to hear the President talk about the importance of helping community colleges and businesses build partnerships, which is exactly what my bipartisan jobs bill, called the AMERICA Works Act, would do. My bill would help train workers for jobs available now by encouraging community colleges and jobs training centers to work with local industries to design curriculum based on the needs of area employers and teach the most in-demand skills.
"Just as important as training our workers is protecting the jobs we already have in North Carolina. I'm closely monitoring ongoing negotiations of a Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, that could negatively affect workers in our state. Specifically, I've called on the Administration to protect textile manufacturers, ensure equal treatment for tobacco farmers and continue to provide incentive for North Carolina bioscience companies to develop potentially life-saving drugs. I will continue to press the Administration to keep in mind the economic impact of any trade deal on North Carolina jobs.
"However, we cannot ignore the long-term unemployment crisis that continues to cripple too many North Carolina families. I'm hopeful the Senate soon will pass legislation that extends emergency unemployment benefits and includes my provision to reinstate North Carolina into the program after the General Assembly last year approved a reckless law that cut off access to this crucial lifeline.
"I'm working with my colleagues everyday on a bipartisan basis to boost our economy, train workers, stand up for teachers, extend a lifeline to the long-term unemployed and protect jobs from potentially harmful trade deals. I will continue to be an advocate for North Carolina families, seniors and servicemembers who sacrifice so much, to ensure a brighter future for each of them."
READ: SOTU: Winston-Salem Man Among Guests Sitting With First Lady