WASHINGTON (AP) — Declaring that upward economic mobility has stalled for millions of Americans, President Barack Obama is challenging a deeply divided Congress to restore the nation's belief in "opportunity for all" — while telling lawmakers he will act on his own "wherever and whenever" he can.
"America does not stand still and neither will I," Obama was saying in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Excerpts of his remarks were released in advance.
The president's address, delivered before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television, marks the opening salvo in a midterm election fight that will quickly consume Washington. Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as protectors of the rich, have pressed Obama to focus more on issues of economic fairness and shrinking the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
The initiatives Obama planned to unveil Tuesday night were tailored to fit those themes. He was to announce executive action to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts, help the long-term unemployed find work and expand job-training programs. He also planned to renew his calls for Congress to expand the minimum wage increase to all workers, pass a sweeping immigration overhaul and increase access to early childhood education programs — all initiatives that stalled after Obama first announced them in last year's State of the Union address.
While unemployment is falling and financial markets are soaring, Obama acknowledged that many Americans have yet to see effects of any broader economic recovery.
"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," Obama says. "And too many still aren't working at all."
Obama's go-it-alone strategy, with modest steps for now, is aimed both at jumpstarting his stagnant second term and prodding a divided Congress to take additional action to boost economic opportunity for millions of Americans. But there's little indication lawmakers are ready to follow along, particularly as the nation barrels toward the midterm elections.
Republicans offered their vision in a response from their party's highest-ranking woman in Congress, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state. The GOP wants to empower everyday Americans and not the government, she said in remarks prepared for delivery after Obama's address. And Obama's policies on the economy and health care are making life harder for those Americans, she said.
"Our mission — not only as Republicans, but as Americans — is to once again ensure that we are not bound by where we come from but empowered by what we can become. That is the gap Republicans are working to close. It's the gap we all face, between where you are and where you want to be," said McMorris Rodgers, who ranks fourth in the House leadership.
Keenly aware of Congress' slim record of recent accomplishments, White House officials see a robust rollout of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Obama still wields power as the clock ticks on his presidency.
Yet much of what the president can do on his own is limited, as evidenced by the minimum wage proposal officials previewed ahead of Tuesday's prime-time address. The executive order will increase the minimum hourly payment for new federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10. But because the measure affects only future contracts, its immediate impact will be minimal.
"The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help?" said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."
The White House says the wage hike would most benefit janitors and construction laborers working under new federal contracts, as well as military base workers who wash dishes, serve food and do laundry. But officials did not say how many people would fall into those categories.
Obama will seek to build on the executive order by renewing his call for Congress to pass a minimum wage increase for all American workers, a proposal that gained little traction after he first announced it in last year's State of the Union address. But White House officials feel somewhat optimistic that they could get backing this year given that some Republican lawmakers have also indicated an interest in working on income inequality and economic mobility issues.
Washington's current focus on inequality comes as many parts of the economy are gaining strength. But the soaring financial markets and corporate balance sheets stand in contrast to the millions of people still out of work or struggling with stagnant incomes that don't stretch as far as they used to.
Seeking to address those issues, Obama will also announce executive actions on job training, boosting employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed and expanding retirement savings for low- and middle-income Americans.
The retirement savings proposal is geared toward workers whose employers don't currently offer such plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs, according to two people who have discussed the proposal with the administration. Those people weren't authorized to discuss the plan ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.
Obama will also tout an initiative to secure commitments from big corporations not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring. Representatives from major companies will join the president at the White House on Friday to promote the effort.
Some Republicans have warned that the president's focus on executive orders could backfire by angering GOP leaders who already don't trust the White House.
"The more he tries to do it alone and do confrontation, the less he's going to be able to get cooperation," said John Feehery, a former top House Republican aide.
The president will still try to score a few legislative victories this year, namely an overhaul of the nation's broken immigration laws. The Senate passed landmark legislation last summer, but the effort stalled in the Republican-led House. Conservatives are pushing back against the president's call to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. And some Democrats would prefer to use the unresolved issue to mobilize Hispanic voters for this year's elections.
Obama will follow his State of the Union address with a quick trip Wednesday and Thursday to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee to promote his proposals.