Barack Obama has used his biggest speech of the year to push for narrowing the gap between rich and poor – and pledged to sidestep Congress “whenever and wherever” necessary to bypass the political gridlock that has bedevilled his presidency.
The US leader’s State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching at home served as the opening salvo in a fight for control of Congress ahead of the November election.
Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Mr Obama to focus on economic mobility and the disparity between the wealthy and poor.
His focus on executive actions was greeted with shouts of “Do it!” from many members of his party.
“Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled,” Mr Obama said. “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. ”
For Mr Obama, the address was also aimed at convincing an increasingly sceptical public that he still wields power in Washington even if he cannot break through the divisions in Congress.
Burned by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they are now redefining success not by what Mr Obama can jam through Congress, but by what actions he can take on his own.
While domestic issues dominated the speech, Mr Obama also warned Congress he would veto any sanctions bill that threatened to derail talks with Iran, even as he acknowledged that the talks may not succeed.
The speech comes as Mr Obama is trying to recover from the blundered roll-out of his signature health care overhaul. An AP-GfK poll this month found 45% of those surveyed approved of the president and 53% disapproved. That is worse than a year ago, when 54% approved and 42% disapproved, but an improvement over his ratings in December, when 58% disapproved of his job performance.
Mr Obama unveiled an array of executive actions that do not need congressional approval, including increasing the minimum wage for some government contract workers and making it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.
But his proposals for action by politicians were slim and largely focused on old ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul and increase the minimum wage. His one new legislation proposal calls for expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.
The negotiations to stop Iran’s nuclear programme dominated the foreign policy part of the speech. Mr Obama said the talks would be difficult and if they failed, he would call for more sanctions.
“But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war,” he said.
On Syria, he also pledged “to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear”.
He said the United States “will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific” and called the alliance with Europe “the strongest the world has ever known”. On the turmoil in Ukraine, he said “we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future”.
But most of his address was devoted to domestic issues, which weigh most heavily on the minds of Americans.
Mr Obama said he was eager to work with Congress on measures requiring approval. “But America does not stand still – 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,” he said.
Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings fall further in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they have cast the widening gap between rich and poor as a symptom of Mr Obama’s economic policies.
In the official response to Mr Obama, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a congressional leader, said the Republican Party “champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you”.
Republicans have thwarted most of Mr Obama’s initiatives, including on gun control and climate change, and this year’s elections make it even less likely that they will rally behind his proposals.
But the partisan fighting has eased somewhat from when Republicans shut down the government for 16 days last year and brought the country to the brink of default.
Mr Obama has some hope of winning support for overhauling America’s immigration system, as Republicans try to build support among the country’s growing Hispanic population ahead of the election. But the White House sees a robust roll-out of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Mr Obama still wields power in the sixth year of his presidency.
Yet much of what the president can do on his own is limited, as evidenced by the minimum wage initiative. The executive order will increase the minimum hourly payment for new federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10. But the measure affects only future contracts and its immediate impact will be minimal.