By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
11:19 PM EST, January 28, 2014
President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to call for a renewed focus on families struggling through the nation's fickle economic recovery, repeatedly warning lawmakers that his administration intends to work around Congress if partisan bickering continues to stymie his second-term agenda.
As he begins the sixth year of a presidency that has been defined largely by his rocky relationship with Capitol Hill, Obama vowed to press for an increase in the federal minimum wage, help for the long-term unemployed and improvements in education and training programs that Democrats have argued would stem the nation's growing income inequality.
"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," the president said. "Our job is to reverse these tides."
But despite some recent flashes of bipartisanship — on the budget and immigration, for instance — it's not likely the political climate in Washington has changed enough to make passage of any of the president's proposals a safe bet. Before he spoke, Republicans dismissed the speech as motivated more by this fall's midterm elections than by a vision for the economy.
Obama has proposed many of the same policy prescriptions before — he sought an increase in the $7.25 federal minimum wage in last year's speech — only to see them stopped by Republican opposition. He renewed calls for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws and touted early successes of his health care law, despite its troubled rollout.
He said he will create a new "starter" retirement account that would be available through employers and backed by the federal government, and he proposed an expansion of a popular tax credit for the working poor.
Democrats, including several from Maryland, praised the address. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who watched the speech in person, described Obama as "right on."
"There are areas where we disagree, and he acknowledged that," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "But he struck the right tone."
Republicans, on the other hand, cast the president's message as especially political and they said he focused too much of the speech on controversial issues rather than areas of potential agreement.
"The president did not lay a whole lot of olive branches out to Congress," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress. "If it's not done his way, I think he'll take unilateral action."
Polls show increasing numbers of voters are unhappy with the direction of the country on Obama's watch. Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe the country is either stagnant or worse off than it was when Obama took office in 2008, according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week.
At least part of the president's message Tuesday was aimed at distancing Democrats from what has been a tough year for the party — from the failed effort to pass stiffer gun controls in the wake of the Sandy Hook Shooting of 2012 to revelations of domestic spying by the National Security Agency to the glitches that plagued health exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats hold 21 of the 36 Senate seats in play in the November elections, including six in states that Obama lost in 2012. Republicans would need to capture a net six seats to win control of the chamber.
In the days leading up to the address, White House officials began to ramp up talk of what they view as a leading cause of the problems they've experienced: A recalcitrant Republican House majority. To get around the roadblock, they said Obama would rely on "the pen and the phone" — signing more executive orders and using the bully pulpit to influence change.
"America does not stand still — and neither will I," the president said . "Congress needs to get on board."
Republicans viewed the go-it-alone threat skeptically. They noted the president's ability to effect change through executive orders is limited, and said they would resist any attempts by the administration to do an end-run around Congress.
"We're gonna watch very closely," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said before the president's speech. "There's a constitution that we all took an oath to — including him."
Among the first executive orders the president said he would sign this year would raise the hourly minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 on new contracts.
The White House did not say exactly how many people would be affected — allies and others put the number at several hundred thousand — and the proposal would do little to clear a political path for a nationwide increase in the minimum wage.
The proposal met with criticism from some groups that typically support the president. J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Tuesday that Obama "needs to get his own house in order" by establishing the higher minimum wage for hourly employees who work in government agencies.
Maryland is home to 314,000 people employed by the federal government — a tenth of the state's workforce — and another 250,000 federal contractors. Lawmakers in Annapolis are considering an increase to the state's minimum wage.
Democrats have been pressing for months for legislation to address the nation's widening gap between the rich and poor. In addition to the minimum wage, they sought to frame the debate over extending federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed as part of that larger theme.
More than 25,000 Marylanders were receiving the extended benefits when they were cut off at the end of December.
Democratic strategists believe the minimum wage issue is one that could find bipartisan backing in the pressure of an election year. Recent polls show a large majority of Americans — nearly three-quarters of the public in a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this month — favor raising the minimum wage although Republicans are sharply divided on the issue.
Republican lawmakers have pushed back on the idea, arguing that Washington's focus should be on job creation and that an increase in the minimum wage could harm the recovery.
"Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington lawmaker who was chosen to give the Republican response to Obama's speech.
"Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder," she said.
The president said he will speed up implementation of the ConnectEd program, his plan to connect all schools to the digital universe, and the administration suggested that would be paid for in part by philanthropic partnerships.
Obama also said he would create a new "starter savings account" to help people who don't have 401K plans or pensions to save for retirement.
Despite the political rancor of the past year, which culminated in a 16-day shutdown of federal agencies in October, there have been recent signs of bipartisanship in Washington. Lawmakers approved a federal budget relatively quickly in December, and House Republicans have signaled a willingness to consider an overhaul of the nation's immigrations law.
The first test this year of whether lawmakers have truly moved beyond the longstanding battles over the deficit will come next month, when Congress faces its latest deadline to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The once-procedural vote has become a rallying point for rank-and-file conservatives to seek spending reductions in the budget.
Obama planned to use the next several days to try to gin up support for the minimum wage increase and other policies during a series of trips across the country, beginning in Prince George's County, on Wednesday. The president is scheduled to visit a Costco in Lanham before traveling to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek supported Obama's reelection effort in 2012 and has long backed an increase in the minimum wage.
Republicans downplayed the idea that Obama's speech or subsequent travel would have much of an impact on policymaking or the fall elections. Harris argued that the speech itself has lost much of its import in modern politics.
"The State of the Union may have been far more useful in the days when presidents didn't give speeches very regularly, very nationally," the Baltimore County lawmaker said. "The president gives nationally broadcast speeches every week or two."
The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this story.
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