January 29

Obama flexes presidential powers in State of the Union

The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen.

AP Photo/Larry Downing

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President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington.

AP Photo/Larry Downing

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Selected economic indicators, 2008-2013


SOURCE: Maine Department of Labor, Center for Workforce Research & Information

Note: the average unemployment rate for the full year of 2013 is still unavailable; the December rate is displayed in the chart above as a proxy.


SOURCE: Maine Association of REALTORS

Such moves "were bigger than anything Congress passed in the last two years aside from the budget," one senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Obama's speech.

But Republicans quickly denounced the new proposals as small potatoes and accused the president of failing to work through the legislative process to achieve more sweeping initiatives.

"I suspect the president has the authority to raise the minimum wage for those dealing with federal contracts," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said before the speech Tuesday, after Obama's plans were leaked by the White House. "But let's understand something: This affects not one current contract; it only affects future contracts with the federal government. And so I think 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 aides acknowledged that the program pertains to future contracts, and they were unable to quantify how many could be helped by the program in the next year, saying more details would be announced in the coming days as Obama embarks on a four-state tour Wednesday and Thursday to rally the public behind his initiatives.

In the official Republican Party response to Obama's address, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., faulted Obama's approach to the economy. Though the unemployment rate fell last month to 6.7 percent — the lowest level in more than five years — the drop was powered mostly by a growing number of unemployed people who stopped looking for work. "Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one," McMorris Rodgers said. "Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder."

The exception to the combative posture from the White House was on immigration reform, which House Republican leaders have signaled in recent weeks that they could be ready to entertain. Obama touched just briefly on the topic, reiterating his call for a comprehensive bill that includes a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Overall, Obama's scaled-down ambitions were reflected in how his speech compared with last year's, which he concluded with an emotional appeal to Congress to approve a set of gun-control laws his administration had proposed after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Congress rejected each of those proposals, and though Obama touched on gun violence briefly in Tuesday's address, he has abandoned his call for broad measures in recent months.

Instead, Obama also praised his health-care law, which is both the signature achievement of his administration and — because of the fraught rollout of HealthCare.gov last year — the centerpiece of Republicans' case against him. Obama described the situation of an Arizona woman, Amanda Shelley, who he said had obtained coverage Jan. 1 because of the law. On Jan. 6, she had emergency surgery — which, Obama said, "would have meant bankruptcy" if she had not been covered.

Then, after saying that the law had made changes for the better, Obama made a blunter argument aimed at congressional Republicans. No matter what they thought of the law, they now had no choice but to live with it.

"I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles," Obama said. "So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people and increase choice, tell America what you'd do differently. 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 like Amanda. The first 40 were plenty."

On foreign policy, Obama highlighted the U.S. military's withdrawal from the long war in Afghanistan, telling the public that the country could maintain a small force there for counterterrorism operations and to train Afghan troops. And he implored Congress not to pass new sanctions on Iran as the his administration attempts to negotiate a multilateral agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program.

Wrapping up his address, Obama acknowledged Remsburg in the first lady's box. Remsburg "never gives up, and he never quits," Obama said, turning to a broader call on the nation to follow the soldier's lead. "The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong, where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy," Obama said. "But if we work together, if we summon what is best in us . . . I know it is within our reach. Believe it."

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