Tuesday evening, President Obama made clear in his fifth State of the Union address that, while he was willing to work with Congress to accomplish his goals, he would not let congressional gridlock hinder his agenda any longer. With less than three years left in the President's second term, he pledged to use his executive authority to find ways around the mess in Washington.
“America does not stand still,” Obama said, “and neither will I. 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 illustrated this vision particularly clearly in matters surrounding the economy. He called upon Congress to work with him to achieve breakthroughs on issues such as reform of immigration laws and benefits to American workers, including a higher minimum wage and extension of long-term unemployment benefits. He also outlined a myriad of ways in which he intends to use executive powers to try to boost the economy on his own.
To that end, the President announced a list of executive orders that he will pursue in the months to come aimed at slowing the income gap among American families. Among these actions were plans to raise the minimum wage for the employees of federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, create a government-backed, risk-free private retirement savings plan and implement a program to connect schools across the country to high speed wireless broadband.
Obama also covered a broad range of topics such as equal pay for women, education reform and Iran’s nuclear program. He touted accomplishments such as increasing energy independence, passing a bipartisan budget deal and diplomatic trade agreements with other nations. Yet he continued to make the case that Congress, and Washington politics more broadly, has become a roadblock to progress. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, the President even threatened a veto of any new sanctions passed in the duration of the agreement.
When Washington’s fighting “prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy — when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States — then we are not doing right by the American people,” Obama said.
The speech stood in strong contrast to the one that the President gave just one year earlier, in which he, fresh off the heels of re-election, engaged and challenged Congress to pass his agenda via legislation.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed that Obama’s job approval rating stood at only 43 percent last year, the first time more Americans disapproved of his performance on the eve of the State of the Union.
The poll also showed that many Americans were pessimistic about the where the country was headed toward. When asked to provide a word that they believed best described the state of the nation, respondents used words such as “divided,” “troubled,” and “deteriorating.” The poll also noted that, for ten consecutive years, more Americans believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction than believed that the country was on the right track.
Perhaps then, it was fitting that the President closed his remarks with a tribute to Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, a hero whom everyone can stand behind. Remsburg, who was nearly killed by a roadside bombing in Afghanistan in his tenth tour of service, had to undergo extensive rehabilitation to even walk and remains blind in one eye. However, as the President said of him, he “never gives up, and he never quits.”
Obama called upon the nation to follow in the soldier’s footsteps. “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.”