WASHINGTON — After five years of fractious political combat, President Obama declared independence from Congress on Tuesday as he vowed to tackle economic disparity with a series of limited initiatives on jobs, wages and retirement that he will enact without legislative approval.
Promising “a year of action” as he tries to rejuvenate a presidency mired in low approval ratings and stymied by partisan stalemates, Mr. Obama used his annual State of the Union address to chart a new path forward relying on his own executive authority. But the defiant “with or without Congress” approach was more assertive than any of the individual policies he advanced.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” a confident Mr. Obama told lawmakers of both parties in the 65-minute nationally televised speech in the House chamber. “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.”
The president’s appearance at the Capitol, with all the traditional pomp and anticipation punctuated by partisan standing ovations, came at a critical juncture as Mr. Obama seeks to define his remaining time in office. He touched on foreign policy, asserting that “American diplomacy backed by the threat of force” had forced Syria to give up chemical weapons and that “American diplomacy backed by pressure” had brought Iran to the negotiating table. And he repeated his plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan this year and threatened again to veto sanctions on Iran that disrupt his diplomatic efforts.
The most emotional point of the evening came with the introduction of Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger the president had met both before and after he was ravaged by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. As Sergeant Remsburg, blind in one eye and having to learn to walk again, made it to his feet in the first lady’s box, lawmakers of both parties gave him an extended ovation.
But Mr. Obama’s message centered on the wide gap between the wealthiest and other Americans as he positioned himself as a champion of those left behind in the modern economy. “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 to get ahead,” he added. “And too many still aren’t working at all. So our job is to reverse these trends.”
To do so, the president announced an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contract workers and the creation of a new Treasury savings bond for workers without access to traditional retirement options. He proposed incentives for trucks running on alternative fuels and higher efficiency standards for those running on gasoline. And he announced a meeting on working families and a review of federal job training programs.
Mr. Obama was gambling that a series of ideas that seem small-bore on their own will add up to a larger collective vision of an America with expanded opportunity. But the moderate ambitions were a stark contrast to past years when Mr. Obama proposed sweeping legislation to remake the nation’s health care system, regulate Wall Street, curb climate change and restrict access to high-powered firearms.
Republicans responded by blaming Mr. Obama for the country’s economic problems, but the party’s leaders avoided the language of last year’s government shutdown and hoped to present what Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington called “a more hopeful, Republican vision” intended to appeal particularly to women in a midterm election year.