State of the Union: Obama promises change, with or without Congress

Washington: US President Barack Obama has challenged Congress to work with him to reduce growing inequality, but reinforced his threat to use executive orders to act on his own accord if it fails to act, during an optimistic hour-long State of the Union address.

The President reaffirmed his determination to act on climate change – which he said was scientific fact – and said his administration was determined to go ahead with its rebalance to the Asia and Pacific.

But as expected the speech focused on domestic politics and in particular on inequality.

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged," he said.

"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 get ahead.  And too many still aren’t working at all.”

He announced that by executive order he would increase the minimum hourly rate paid to new federal contract workers from $US7.25 ($8.26) to $US10.10 ($11.50) an hour.

This executive order, announced shortly before the speech, is also a clear indication of how  Mr Obama will seek to use his office’s authority over executive agencies and regulatory bodies.

Mr Obama challenged Congress to resume the unemployment payments it cut off to 1.6 million people late last year and called for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless low-wage workers, effectively a federal government incentive for working.

"America does not stand still, and neither will I," Mr Obama said. "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 received a long ovation from his own side of chamber when he called on action this year to raise women’s pay, which currently stands at 77 cents to the dollar earned by men.

“It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode,” he said. “This year, let’s all come together – Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street – to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds.

And as expected, Mr Obama called for reform to America’s immigration system. “Finally, if we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labour leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system,” he said.

“Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.”

Significantly the President mounted an energetic defence of the Affordable Healthcare Act, which was marked by a disastrous introduction last year.

He called on Republicans to cease trying to overturn the law and instead offer ways to improve it.

“Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently,” he said.

“Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans ... We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”

First lady Michelle Obama sat beside army ranger Cory Remsburg, whom the President had once met during a visit to Omaha beach. Sergeant First Class Remsburg was nearly killed months later during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan. His introduction and the President’s vote of thanks to the young soldier and the military more broadly received the longest, warmest ovation in a speech marked by relentless political applause.

Also watching on was Willie Robertson, son of Phil Robertson, the star of the reality show Duck Dynasty who was recently suspended for making anti-gay and loaded racial comments in an interview. Mr Robertson was the guest of the Louisiana Republican Vance McAllister, who appeared to continuing the recent tradition of using the address to insult the President. Last year gun enthusiast and singer Ted Nugent, who once declared he would end up dead or in jail if Mr Obama was elected, was the guest of  Texas Republican Steve Stockman.

Demonstrating divisions in the GOP there were three rather than the customary single Republican responses. The main rejoinder was presented by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Tea Party had Mike Lee respond and the libertarian Rand Paul gave his own response.

This story State of the Union: Obama promises change, with or without Congress first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.