WASHINGTON — President Obama vowed in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday to throw his energy in the coming months into creating more opportunities for the millions of Americans whose prospects continue to languish even as the nation's economy has improved.
The broad address was immediately dismissed by Republicans as lacking acknowledgement of the problems Americans are facing.
In a speech in which he offered a laundry list of ambitions for this year while alluding to past fights with Republicans over his agenda, Obama said he held hope that Washington can make big strides in 2014.
FULL TEXT: 2014 State of the Union address
He proudly noted that the U.S. has achieved its lowest unemployment rate in five years, the housing market has rebounded, and a manufacturing sector that is adding jobs for the first time since 1990s.
But he also lamented Washington's dysfunction — including last year's government shutdown and a partisan fights over raising the nation's debt limit that tarnished the USA's credit rating — as moments when "we are not doing right by the American people."
"The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress," Obama said.
"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.
After five years in office, Obama has acknowledged that he may have few chances left to shape the country through legislation, particularly if Republicans maintain control of the House through the final three years of his presidency.
As he suggested in recent weeks, Obama stressed that he was prepared to use executive authority to push forward with his agenda, if Congress proves unwilling to work with him. To that end, he announced a series of executive actions he stood ready to take, most notably that he would sign an order in the coming to weeks to hike the minimum wage for some contractors doing work for the federal workers.
The speech marked an inflection point for a presidency less than 10 months before voters head to the polls for midterm elections, races that have historically been tough on the incumbent president's party.
The address also offered Obama an opportunity to try to hit the reset button after a difficult year that saw his standing with Americans battered by the glitch-riddled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the fallout from revelations of the National Security Agency's surveillance methods by Edward Snowden, and an uneven economic recovery.
Obama acknowledged that Americans' confidence has "suffered some serious blows" as the middle class has been worn down by the Great Recession, massive shifts in technology and global competition.
He weighed heavily on his concerns about growing income inequality in America, and the importance of finding a pathway for Americans that are struggling in their quest to live better than their parents' did.
"Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "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."
Ahead of his address on Tuesday, Republicans took aim at the president's botched rollout of the health care law and called on him to approve the transcontinental Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists and much of Obama's Democratic base overwhelmingly oppose.
"The choice the president now confronts is a pretty basic one," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican facing re-election in 2014. "Does he want to be a hero to the left, or a champion for the middle class? It can't be both. He has to choose."
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chosen to deliver the Republican response to the address, spoke directly of the problems with Obamacare — a theme that the GOP plans to continue to hit on through the 2014 election cycle.
"We've all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn't expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have," said McMorris Rodgers. "No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but the president's health care law is not working."
In the Tea Party response, Sen. Mike Lee said both Obama and establishment Republicans share responsibility for growing inequality.
"But where does this new inequality come from?" Lee said. "From government — every time it takes rights and opportunities away from the American people and gives them instead to politicians, bureaucrats and special interests."
Even before the president delivered his speech, the White House announced he would sign an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for janitors, cooks and other workers serving the federal government through private contractors.
The decision by Obama, who has backed Democratic-proposed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers, came after facing weeks of calls from liberal lawmakers urging him to use his executive authority to address the contract workers' plight. Low-paid contract workers at federal buildings in Washington also staged a series of one-day strikes in recent weeks.
In his speech, Obama highlighted his use of the executive order and called on Congress to follow up with support for legislation sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would gradually raise the minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 per hour by the end of his presidency.
"America does not stand still -- and neither will I," Obama intoned. "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."
Less controversially, he sketched out plans to use executive powers to create new starter retirement accounts for workers that don't receive such benefits at their jobs and set new fuel efficiency standards for heavy duty trucks. He also announced a plan to connect 20 million students in 15,000 technological schools.
Ahead of the president's address, House Speaker John Boehner downplayed the significance of the minimum wage order, while also warning Obama against executive overreach. "We're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us."
Obama, in turn, called on Republicans to work with him on a number of legislative issues, including renewing extended unemployment insurance, which lapsed for 1.3 million Americans shortly after Christmas.
He pointed to Misty DeMars, a mother of two boys from west suburban Chicago, as an example of Americans who are hurting as a result of extended benefits being cut off.
DeMars, who attended the speech as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama, lost her job in May as a result of budget cuts, weeks after she and her husband poured their life savings into buying their home.
"Congress, give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance," Obama said. "They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game."
Significantly, Obama treaded lightly on his push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, dedicating all of a paragraph of his address to what is expected to be most ambitious legislative effort of the remainder of his time in office.
Obama has expressed hope that he can forge a deal with House Republicans that can lead to a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented workers. Ahead of the speech, the White House made clear to Democrats it would be helpful to the administration strategy to give Republicans some space to develop their own course on the issue. Obama's scant mention of the issue was reflective of the approach.
Finding a path to legislation, however, will remain complicated as Republicans have shown a preference for setting a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants short of citizenship—a deal breaker for many of the president's Democratic allies.
Obama also attempted to demonstrate that his administration is no longer on its heels over Obamacare.
After several bruising months, in which he faced flack as tens of thousands Americans received cancellation notices from their insurers and problems with a balky federal health care exchange, Obama went on the offense in support of his signature legislative achievement of his presidency.
"I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."
Obama also called on Congress to approve major trade deals with 11 Pacific countries and the European Union that he sees as crucial to a lofty goal he set early in his presidency of doubling exports by 2015. But Obama's hopes for the two pacts face considerable opposition from his own political base.
Prior to the speech, dozens of influential labor, environmental and consumer groups sent a letter to Congress urging members to block the deal.
"After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy," the letter said.
Obama, however, argued on the trade partnerships will help create new jobs for American small businesses.
"We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped Made in the USA," Obama said. "China and Europe aren't standing on the sidelines. Neither should we."
On foreign policy, Obama highlighted his plans to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but did comment on his administration's frustrations in striking a deal with the Afghan government on a longer term security agreement to allow some U.S. forces to remain in the country to train Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorism operations beyond that date.
He spoke briefly about the situation in Syria, where a three-year-old civil war has ravaged the country. Obama also argued that American diplomacy -- backed by the threat of force — "is why Syria's chemical weapons are being eliminated."
On Iran, the president called on Congress to give an interim agreement with between P5+1 partners and Iran time to work. The six-month agreement, which went into effect earlier this month, has led to Iran ceasing certain nuclear activity, and in exchange the U.S. has agreed to ease an estimated $7 billion in economic sanctions against the country.
But a large bipartisan group of lawmakers has threatened to pass new sanctions against Iran — a move that would likely unravel the nuclear agreement.
In a segment of the speech that was certainly watched closely by Tehran, Obama declared that if John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could manage to confidently negotiate with the Soviet Union in 1980s, a much more powerful adversary, than surely "a strong and confident American" can negotiate with Iran.
"Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it," Obama said. "For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."