28 January 2014
Last updated at 23:53 ET
US President Barack Obama has promised to bypass a fractured Congress to tackle economic inequality in his annual State of the Union address.
He pledged to “take steps without legislation” wherever possible, announcing a rise in the minimum wage for new federal contract staff.
On Iran, he said he would veto any new sanctions that risked derailing talks.
The Democratic president is facing some of his lowest approval ratings since first taking office in 2009.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” Mr Obama said.
Noting that inequality has deepened and upward mobility stalled, he would offer “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class”.
“America does not stand still – and neither will I,” he 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.”
Time running out
Just over a year after his re-election, Mr Obama must contend with determined opposition from the Republican Party, which controls the House of Representatives and has the numbers in the Senate to block his agenda.
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Gone is the audacity of hope. This State of the Union address didn’t promise big changes on anything – there was no transformation on offer here.
But this address had the virtue at least of touching on bread-and-butter issues that genuinely affect millions of Americans – savings plans for workers who don’t have them, health insurance, training schemes and the minimum wage, just to name a few. For poorer Americans improvements in any of those would make a huge difference.
This was Mr Obama’s last best chance to reset his presidency. I’m not sure he managed a major shift. But he showed where his focus is and made a compelling case for at least trying to improve social mobility – with or without Congress.
Time is running short before Washington DC turns its attention to the 2016 race to elect his successor, threatening to sideline him even with three years remaining in office.
During his address, Mr Obama appealed to Congress to restore unemployment insurance that recently expired for 1.6 million people, and asked Republicans to stop trying to repeal his signature healthcare overhaul.
The botched rollout of the website on which Americans could sign up for healthcare has dented the president’s popularity.
Mr Obama stressed the importance of early childhood schooling, better value university education, and equal opportunities in the workplace for women.
He also appealed to Congress to approve a rise in the national minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. His executive order raising the hourly rate of federal contract workers to $10.10 (£6.10) will only apply to future contracts.
House Speaker John Boehner said the impact would be “close to zero” and warned that such a move would cost jobs. He told reporters his party would watch to ensure the president did not exceed his authority through the use of such executive actions.
The president also urged the Republican House of Representatives to support a broad overhaul of the US immigration system, saying it would “make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone”.
Last year, the Senate passed a bill that included a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.
The House has thus far declined to hold a vote on that legislation, although in recent days US media have reported the chamber’s Republican leaders are weighing a series of more limited measures.
On foreign policy, Mr Obama pledged to:
- support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future
- back the opposition in Syria “that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks”
- make sure any long-term deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is “based on verifiable action”.
He also said that, with major US operations in Afghanistan due to end, “this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay”.
After Mr Obama’s speech, three Republicans are offering several rebuttals, a departure from the tradition of the opposition choosing a single voice to follow the president.
Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave the official response on behalf of the Republican Party, calling on Mr Obama to take action “by empowering people, not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs”.
Republican Kentucky Senator and presumed 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul, a favourite of the party’s libertarian wing, released a taped address.
“Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone,” he said. “Government spending doesn’t work.”
Utah Senator Mike Lee offered a response on behalf of the populist, anti-tax tea party movement, saying he shared the frustration of Americans with “an ever-growing government that somehow thinks it is OK to lie to, spy on and even target its own citizens.”