WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama looked to revive his second term in a sweeping speech to the nation Tuesday, outlining an agenda that calls for creating jobs and addressing the widening gap between rich and poor.
In his annual State of the Union address, Obama called for a “Year of Action,” saying that he wants to work with Congress but will act on his own when he can, if necessary.
In one example, he said he’d sign an executive order forcing federal contractors to raise the minimum wage for their low-paid workers — and he challenged Congress to do the same for all workers.
He offered a mix of new and old ideas, and after five years of being routinely thwarted by Congress, Obama made it clear he plans to go it alone when he can’t get congressional buy-in, using the power of his office.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said in the speech to a nationally televised joint session of Congress. “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.”
Entering his sixth year in office, Obama worked to tie economic complaints to a long tide of history rather than his own record. He said that although the U.S. has largely pulled out of the economic recession, the middle class has lost jobs and income from three decades of blows, including shifts in technology and global competition.
“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,” he 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.”
Obama said he would introduce new retirement savings plans with a guaranteed return for those whose employers do not offer such plans. White House officials said about half of workers don’t have a work-based retirement plan.
He said he would host a summit to highlight policies that help working families, instruct Vice President Joe Biden to review the federal job training system and work with companies to increase apprenticeships. He said he cut bureaucratic red tape by improving the efficiency of the federal permitting process and pushing for more timely decisions on permits and reviews.
Obama said he will continue to push Congress to extend jobless benefits and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for all Americans — a move some Democrats are eager to use to contrast with Republicans on the campaign trail in November.
The executive order would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour for employees who work for companies involved in future government contracts. White House officials said they hoped it would spark other employers to follow suit.
Obama said he also wants lawmakers to expand the earned income tax credit, remove retirement tax breaks for the wealthiest while expanding them for the middle class, give women more tools to fight discrimination and protect gay workers.
He again pushed lawmakers to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws — which he said could grow the economy $1 trillion over two decades and create thousands of jobs.
The Democratic-controlled Senate last year passed the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation. The Republican-led House of Representatives won’t consider the bill, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, until the borders are secure.