President Obama calls for action, optimism in State of the Union address

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama said he would act alone or with Congress in a speech Tuesday night that mixed high aspirations with modest proposals.

In his State of the Union report, the president celebrated the "grit and determined effort" that pulled the nation out of recession, the end of the war in Afghanistan, bipartisan successes and an improving economic outlook. He challenged Congress to work with him on a policy blueprint he outlined that included initiatives on jobs, wages, education and energy. He strongly urged Congress to pass immigration legislation and extend unemployment benefits

His program, he said, was founded on "the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all -- the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America." That belief has suffered "some serious blows," he acknowledged in the speech.

"Our job is to reverse these tides. It won't happen right away, and we won't agree on everything, but what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity to the middle class," he said.

But if Congress won't go along with his plans, the president said, he has other tools at his disposal: a pen to sign executive actions and a phone to rally support. "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," he said.

Mr. Obama laid out a series of paired proposals, spelling out some modest measures he'd take on his own and calling on Congress to work on the same issue.

He said he would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for workers in new federal contracts, such as civilian military employees who serve food, wash dishes and launder uniforms. That's something he can do without approval from Congress, which refused to go along with the $9 federal minimum wage he asked for in last year's State of the Union address. He again asked Congress to boost the minimum wage for all workers, this time from $7.25 to $10.10.

Energy independence is key to bringing back jobs, the president said, promising to help cut red tape to facilitate construction of factories fueled by natural gas. That's good news for Pennsylvania's burgeoning gas industry. But another Pennsylvania energy sector, coal, could take a hit if the president makes good on a promise to end $4 billion worth of tax breaks to fossil-fuel industries.

"The shift to a cleaner-energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way," Mr. Obama said. "When our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer world with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, 'Yes, we did.' "

The president said he plans to use executive action to create a government-run retirement program for workers whose employers don't offer pension plans. Under the program, workers could sign up to have a percentage of their pay deducted to buy Treasury bonds, which would go into an individualized retirement account.

He touted his health reform law, which suffered a disastrous rollout of online glitches last fall, but has since resulted in millions of people signing up for insurance on exchanges or through Medicaid. He challenged Congress to stop taking votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and instead make proposals that would improve the health care system.

Mr. Obama said he was asking Vice President Joe Biden to lead an effort to reform job-training programs, and again suggested that Congress should fund "proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-fill jobs." He announced plans to supplement two high-tech hubs started last year with six more, and asked Congress to authorize additional ones.

He also called for reforming unemployment insurance. "But first, this Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people," he said.

As an example, he cited Misty DeMars, a mother of two seated in the audience who wrote him a letter about the loss of her unemployment insurance. She'd been employed since she was a teenager and put herself through college, but had lost her job. "Congress, give these hard-working, responsible Americans that chance," the president said. "They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game."

Mr. Obama gave a short nod to gun legislation, which failed in Congress last year after he passionately pursued it as a legislative goal. "I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors and police officers all over this country who say, 'We are not afraid,' and I intend to keep trying -- with or without Congress -- to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls or schools like Sandy Hook," he said.

He paid tribute to the military, citing the need to provide through veterans' hospitals for the post-war care of many of them. He also called upon Congress to lift restrictions that prevent the closure of the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The speech showed a shift in tone for the president, who used previous speeches as opportunities -- which, in the end, largely failed -- to coax Republicans toward compromise on gun control, immigration and other issues. His call this time for a year of action as well as his stated willingness to govern by executive order don't sit well with Republicans.

"I don't like the idea that somehow he has to go around Congress to get something, when he hasn't even tried to go through Congress to do it," said Pennsylvania's Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler. "He needs to be a uniter and not be divisive."

Democrats such as Pennsylvania's Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said the president was offering cooperation. "The American people don't want to see any more gridlock, so what the president is saying is, 'I want to work with Congress. I want to do this bipartisan. I want to do this together, but in the end we have to do it.' And if for some reason we can't do this together, then he's going to use what abilities he has as president to move the ball forward," Mr. Doyle said.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said: "The president overstated the extent of the economy's recovery under his policies. In fact, the labor force participation is at its lowest point in 35 years, because more and more people have become so discouraged with our dismal job market that they have given up looking for work in the Obama economy. Median family income is down by $2,000 since he took office.

"And the very income inequality the president spoke of has exploded under his leadership, so that today there is a wider gap than there was under [Republican former] President [George W.] Bush, and even prior to the Great Depression in 1928."

But Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was optimistic that congressional action on the minimum wage could happen, despite previous failed attempts at smaller increases. "It's a new year. ... The challenge families face are still every bit as acute or intense or as burdensome as they were a year ago," he said.

Mr. Casey said the economy is growing again, "but there are still a lot of folks that are making the minimum wage and still having trouble making ends meet. I think the urgency for an increase in the minimum wage is pretty pronounced and pretty significant."

That's one reason why he invited Tianna Turner-Gaines, an unemployed Philadelphia mother of three as his speech guest, while most other members brought state dignitaries and party leaders. Ms. Turner-Gaines is looking for work, and her husband is supporting the family on a minimum-wage job, Mr. Casey said.

"She is a personification of the challenges of workers and their families. They are most of the time working but still falling behind, working but getting a minimum wage that hasn't been increased, working but not able to get ahead because of the cost of virtually everything in their life has gone up," he said.

Many Republicans, though, said a minimum wage increase would stymie job creation, because employers won't be able to afford to grow their companies. Mr. Kelly, for one, said the president's focus on the minimum wage was too narrow. "I don't want the American people to think the goal is to get a job that pays you the minimum," he said. "This talk about minimum wage is a diversion of the real problem. Do we really want to concentrate on the minimum wage, or do we want to concentrate on the maximum wage?"

Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said he was open to discussions about increasing the minimum wage, but he prefers to see policy changes that create a better business climate, where wages will grow organically at all earning levels. What he isn't open to are increased efforts by the president to use executive actions to override the will of Congress. "The president should be working with the Congress, instead of going it alone all the time," he said.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, criticized Mr. Obama's announced retirement fund effort as misdirected. "If you want to work on a retirement fund, stop borrowing from Social Security to fund other things," he said. "There already is a retirement fund. Let's quite taking from that and put 'security' back in Social Security."

The most affecting moment of the president's speech was near the end, when he spoke of a gravely wounded soldier, and the young man, seated in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama, slowly rose to acknowledge the chamber audience's standing ovation.

Mr. Obama said he met Army Ranger Cory Remsburg during a D-Day commemoration at Omaha Beach, and then later visited him in the hospital after he was badly injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

"Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye," Mr. Obama told the audience. "He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again -- and he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again."

"My recovery has not been easy," Mr. Obama quoted him as saying. "Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy." That, Mr. Obama said, is true of America as well.

Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published January 28, 2014 10:27 PM

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