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Obama Vows To Flex Presidential Powers In 2014 State Of The Union Address

Obama's 2014 State of the Union Address

Above: President Barack Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address.

Aired 1/29/14 on KPBS News.

Viewership is declining. Washington seems increasingly dysfunctional and irrelevant to the daily lives of Americans. The presidency isn't the bully pulpit it used to be.

Seeking to energize his sluggish second term, President Barack Obama vowed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address to sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever" necessary to narrow economic disparities between America's rich and poor.

He unveiled an array of modest executive actions to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers and make it easier for millions of low-income people to save for retirement.

"America does not stand still and neither do I," Obama declared in his prime-time address before a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television.

Draped in presidential grandeur, Obama's hour-long address served as the opening salvo in a midterm election fight for control of Congress that will quickly consume Washington's attention. Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Obama to focus on economic mobility and the gap between the wealthy and poor. His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of "Do it!" from many members of his party.

Declaring 2014 a "year of action," Obama also sought to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he still wields power in Washington even if he can't crack through the divisions in Congress. Burned by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they're now redefining success not by what Obama can jam through Congress but by what actions he can take on his own.

As Obama gave his fifth State of the Union address, his approval rating hovered at around 46 percent.

But a group of San Diego Democrats resolved not to give up hope. They gathered in a pizza restaurant in Kearny Mesa to watch the speech and maintained they think the president can turn it around for the end of his second term.

Francine Busby, the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said she was thrilled to hear Obama mention income inequality and the innovation economy, because both relate to San Diego.

"When he said people shouldn't have full time jobs and live in poverty, and in San Diego we have a high percentage of people who work here and live here, that they can't afford to live here," she said. "The fact that he wants to invest in the innovation economy and sees that as our future is really important to San Diego."

"When he said our votes, not our bank accounts should drive democracy, I think that's what this election that we're having in San Diego is about right now," she added. "The voters are demanding that the city provide the services and infrastructure for them, and not just for people who can afford high-priced lobbyists that have influence with the city."

Joe Armenta, a senior at UC San Diego, said he's been disappointed with the president for not following through on some campaign promises. But, he thinks Obama can turn it around.

"I think the speech marks a rhetoric for 'get your stuff together Congress,' and let's move forward to get things done in this country," he said.

Armenta said because he will soon be entering the job market, he was hoping to hear Obama address the economy, and said he was satisfied with what the president said.

"Especially when he was talking about student loans, about students being able to pay off the cost of education, it's just so high right now," Aremnta said.

KPBS reached out to the San Diego County Republican Party for its reaction to the speech, but did not get a response.

Obama's proposals for action by lawmakers were slim and largely focused on old ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul, pass an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education — all ideas that gained little traction after he proposed them last year. The president's one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.

Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings fall further in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening gap between rich and poor as a symptom of Obama's economic policies.

"Republicans have plans to close the gap, plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts and red tape," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in the Republicans' televised response to the president's speech. "We hope the president will join us in a year of real action, by empowering people, not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs."

The economy and other domestic issues, including health care, dominated the president's address. He touched only briefly on foreign policy, reiterating his threat to veto any new sanctions Congress might levy on Iran while nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic are underway and touting the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan this year.

In an emotional high point, Obama singled out Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was a guest of first lady Michelle Obama. Remsburg, who was nearly killed in Afghanistan during one of his 10 deployments, rose slowly from his seat and was greeted by long and thunderous applause from the president and lawmakers.

Even as Washington increasingly focuses on income inequality, many parts of the economy are gaining strength, with corporate profits soaring and the financial markets hitting record highs. But with millions of Americans still out of work or struggling with stagnant wages, Obama has found himself in the sometimes awkward position of promoting a recovery that feels distant for many.

"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 said. "And too many still aren't working at all."

The president garnered some of his loudest applause — at least from Democrats — when he took on lawmakers who oppose his signature health care law, which floundered in its initial rollout last fall. Obama said that while he doesn't expect to convince Republicans on the merits of the law, "I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."

The president's speech drew an eclectic mix of visitors to the House chamber. Among those sitting with Mrs. Obama were two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player. Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought business owners from his home state of Ohio who say Obama's health care overhaul is hurting their companies. Willie Robertson, a star of the television show "Duck Dynasty," also scored a seat in the House gallery, courtesy of the Republicans.

Though Obama sought to emphasize his presidential powers, there are stark limits to what he can do on his own. For example, he unilaterally can raise the minimum hourly wage for new federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, as he announced, but he'll need Congress in order to extend that increase to all of America's workers.

The executive order for contractors, which Obama will sign in the coming weeks, is limited in its scope. It will not affect existing federal contracts, only new ones, and then only if other terms of an agreement change.

Republicans quickly panned the executive initiative as ineffective. Said Boehner: "The question is how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."

White House officials countered by saying many more working people would benefit if Congress would go along with Obama's plan to raise the minimum wage across the board.

"Give America a raise," Obama declared.

Among the president's other executive initiatives is a plan to help workers whose employers don't offer retirement savings plans. The program would allow first-time savers to start building up savings in Treasury bonds that eventually could be converted into traditional IRAs. Obama is expected to promote the "starter" accounts during a trip to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

The president also announced new commitments from companies to consider hiring the long-term unemployed, the creation of four "manufacturing hubs" where universities and businesses would work together to develop and train workers, new incentives to encourage truckers to switch from dirtier fuels to natural gas or other alternatives and a proposed tax credit to promote the adoption of cars that can run on cleaner fuels, such as hydrogen, natural gas or biofuels.

The president's go-it-alone strategy is in many ways an acknowledgment that he has failed to make good on two major promises to the American people: that he would change Washington's hyper-partisanship and that his re-election would break the Republican "fever" and clear the way for congressional action on major initiatives.

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.

"This isn't the American way, courts have not supported his past attempts, and he only does damage to the American people's confidence in government when he doesn't work with Congress to pass real reforms," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Obama isn't abandoning Congress completely. He made a renewed pitch for legislation to overhaul the nation's fractured immigration laws, perhaps his best opportunity for signing significant legislation this year. But the odds remain long, with many Republicans staunchly opposed to Obama's plan for creating a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.

Seeking to give the GOP some room to maneuver, Obama did not specifically call for a citizenship pathway Tuesday, saying only, "Let's get it done. It's time."

Opening a new front with Congress, the president called for an extension of the earned-income tax credit, which helps boost the wages of low-income families through tax refunds. Obama wants it broadened so that it provides more help than it does now to workers without children, a view embraced by some Republicans and conservative economists.

Obama singled out Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has proposed replacing the tax credit with a federal wage supplement for workers in certain low-paying jobs. Unlike Obama, however, Republicans have suggested expanding the tax credit as an alternative to increasing the minimum wage.

Pivoting briefly to foreign policy, Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.

The president also warned lawmakers in both parties against passing new economic sanctions against Iran while the U.S. and international partners are holding nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic. He renewed his commitment to veto sanctions legislation if it passes, arguing that a new round of penalties would upend the sensitive diplomacy.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Jim Kuhnhenn, Nedra Pickler and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.

Comments

Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | January 29, 2014 at noon ― 7 months ago

Obama vowed to sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever".

His emphasis on executive actions was greeted with shouts of "Do it!" from many members of his party.

White House aides say they're now redefining success not by what Obama can jam through Congress but by what actions he can take on his own.

===

UNBELIEVABLE! I was absolutely shocked by his state of the union address. Those are the words of a dictator not a president.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 29, 2014 at 4:21 p.m. ― 7 months ago

CA Defender,

Obama's words would be shocking if this were his first or second year, but after years of TRYING to get Congress to act and simply not being able to get anything done, Obama is perfectly within reason to suggest this,

It's hardly the moves of a dictator.

A dictator changes laws to manipulate and amass total power.

Obama is not trying to amass power or change our government so he can grab power, he is simply proposing using something that is an existing part of his job to get things done.

He has not proposed eliminating a single check or balance of our government, he is simply talking about doing something that is already within the powers of the Presidency per our form of government. The powers he is saying he will envoke do (and rightfully so) have limitations, and has not proposed going over any of these limitations.

He has actually REFRAINED from using Presidential powers that are perfectly legal and available to him for years trying to work with Congress, but Congress was so mired in gridlock nothing got done.

We elect the President to lead and to enact those things promised at the time of election knowing full well the powers the President does and doesn't have.

It sounds like you would prefer the President had no independent authority whatsoever?

I find it hard to believe you think Obama is a dictator for doing his job and utilizing those tools available to him and all Presidents.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | January 29, 2014 at 5:39 p.m. ― 7 months ago

Duck,

Presidents since the Civil War have each amassed more power for the executive branch like a dirty snowball growing with each rotation. Obama is adding to it.

I'm actually not shocked, as he has done this since day one, just like every other president.

But what I found unusual was his direct language clearly indicating his disdain and disrespect for Congress saying he plans to sidestep the entire legislative branch.

Now this will cause the next president to outwardly ignore the legislative branch, and perhaps he/she will begin to ignore the judicial branch as well. A dirty snowball.

And you ask if I would prefer that the president had no independent authority? YES! Of course! The president should be the spokesperson for the government, not a policy maker. The president's power (and singular independent action) is the veto. NOT POLICY, or war, or finance, or the many other things that corrupt presidents have added to the executive branch.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 29, 2014 at 8:16 p.m. ― 7 months ago

CADef, so your beef is with the way the U.S. Government works, not with Obama using executive powers that were in place when he was elected.

You say: "But what I found unusual was his direct language clearly indicating his disdain and disrespect for Congress saying he plans to sidestep the entire legislative branch."

Why? The American people feel the same way, Congress' approval rating is at about the same level as toe fungus.

This Congress has been historically obstructive, they have block nearly all his appointments, they have refused compromise on anything - he has every right to be frustrated with Congress.

I mean it's not like he's using executive orders for major things - he used it this week to create a program for government-backed IRAs for people who work but don't have retirement benefits. Ooooooh, that's Stalin-like Dictatorship right there, trying to help Americans prepare for retirement :)

Bottom line is the executive powers aren't limitless, you can only do so much and Obama has not used them anywhere near the maximum he could have, and he's also used them LESS than recent Presidents.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 30, 2014 at 8:25 a.m. ― 7 months ago

Obama has used executive orders (average use per year), LESS. than any other president since FDR.

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/defining-tyranny-down

So, if using executive orders makes him a 'Dictator' as CA Defender argues, or if it means he is breaking the law, as Crazy Eyes Michelle Bachman and other right wing gov. Officials and propaganda hosts allege, this means that other Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, were BIGGER Dictators and MORE SEVERE law breakers than Obama is.

Ca Def., do you believe Ronald Reagan was a Dictator ?

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 30, 2014 at 8:34 a.m. ― 7 months ago

And many of the poor dears crowding into the fox "news" studio or taking to twitter to show their "outrage" at this don't even know how the government works.

A scary affair considering they are elected officials holding high office.

From the article posted :

"Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appears to have forgotten what an executive order even is, complaining that Obama is trying to “write laws.” "

"Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), for example, called the president a “Socialistic dictator” and the “Kommandant-In-Chef.” He probably meant “chief,” but the point was clear."

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 30, 2014 at 10:24 a.m. ― 7 months ago

Not to beat a dead horse, but the whole premise behind our government is to have equal balance of power amongst the three branches.

This means that the President should have some executive-level power, but it needs to be balanced by equal judicial and legislative power.

What you seem to be suggesting CA, is that the President should have LESS power than the Congress?

When any one branch gets too powerful to the point where it's obstructing the government, the other branches are supposed to "check and balance", that's how it's designed to work.

President Obama is applying a "check and balance" to a completely dysfunctional and obstructive legislative branch or government.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | January 30, 2014 at 11:11 a.m. ― 7 months ago

Duck,

First off, you don't need to convince me that there have been worse dictators than Obama. Bush, Reagan, Kennedy, FDR, TR, and the original dictator (and worst of all) Lincoln.

Second, use of executive orders isn't the only measure of a dictator. Use of war powers, secret courts and prisons, rendition, spying (foreign and domestic), assassinations/black ops, credit/market manipulation, corporate collusion, nepotism, and so on ad nauseam.

Even things that may seem benign like using the bully pulpit to cement policy or influence public opinion is the action of a dictator.

An American president as intended by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution should be the spokesperson/figurehead of the government, and a check on the power of Congress with the power to veto, but NOT A POLICY MAKER, GENERAL, BANKER, SPY MASTER, JUDGE, JAILER, and EXECUTIONER.

That makes a DICTATOR and that is what we have.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | January 30, 2014 at 11:18 a.m. ― 7 months ago

Duck,

It also seems you are ok with a president circumventing Congress just because they are unpopular. That is incredibly dangerous thinking.

Don't forget that Obama is unpopular too, but it is far easier to say you disapprove of a group of 535 rather than one.

Obama isn't applying checks and balances to Congress. He has vowed to entirely "sidestep Congress whenever and wherever." This is no longer America. It is something far different and dangerous.

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