Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Julie Pace
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Struggling to generate second-term momentum, President Barack Obama will confront a politically divided Congress with a demand to expand economic mobility in America, asserting in his State of the Union address Tuesday that he will take action on his own if lawmakers fail to help shrink the income gap between the rich and the poor.
Obama’s broad themes – described by the White House as opportunity, action, and optimism – may find some support among Republicans, who also have picked up the inequality mantle in recent months. But as Congress barrels toward the midterm elections, there’s little indication the president will win over the GOP with his policy prescriptions, including a renewed push to increase the minimum wage and expand access to early childhood education.
With its grand traditions and huge prime-time television audience, the State of the Union offers Obama an opportunity to start fresh after a year where his legislative agenda stalled, his signature health care law floundered and his approval rating tumbled. The president has cast 2014 as a “year of action” but has yet to show the public how he’ll ensure that’s more than just an empty promise.
Previewing the president’s remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “He’ll certainly aim high. Presidents ought to aim high.”
Obama has been tinkering with the speech in his typical fashion, writing out notes long-hand on yellow legal pads and scribbling edits on drafts typed out by his speechwriting team. The White House has heavily promoted the address on social media sites like Instagram, posting photos of Obama working in the Oval Office with lead speechwriter Cody Keenan. Aides are also working on an interactive version of the speech that will run online and feature charts and statistics about the president’s proposals as he’s speaking.
While each of Obama’s speeches to Congress has centered on the economy, the challenges have changed as the nation has moved away from the deep recession. Corporate profits and the financial markets have reached record highs, but many Americans are struggling with long-term unemployment and stagnant salaries.
Increasing the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education programs are both seen by the White House as ways to increase economic opportunity for low- and middle-income Americans. The initiatives stalled after Obama first announced them in last year’s State of the Union address, but aides say they see glimmers of hope for progress this year, particularly on minimum wage. Obama has previously backed raising the federal minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour to $10.10.
“These economic issues are breaking out,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the White House. “People are very focused on more support for workers in this tight economy.”
Of course, there’s little guarantee Congress will act on issues that it largely ignored over the past year. With that in mind, advisers say Obama is determined to act on his own when lawmakers will not.
“When American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an email to supporters Saturday.
One area where aides say the president sees opportunity to take executive action is in addressing the long-term unemployed, including a plan to generate commitments from the private sector to hire people who have been out of work for extended periods of time. Obama is expected to hold an event at the White House next week focused on that effort.
The president will also continue his tradition of traveling the country in the days after his State of the Union address, with stops planned in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
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