Obama Proposes Ambitious Agenda In Address To Nation

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President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech with enthusiasm Tuesday night. Facing a Congress that has often frustrated him, the president offered a list of proposals they could pass — and a series of plans he could enact if they don't.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech with enthusiasm last night. Facing a Congress that has often frustrated him, as well as sagging poll numbers, the president offered a list of proposals Congress could pass, and a series of plans he could enact alone if they don't.

The president addressed major issues, like inequality, education and energy, yet also put forward the kind of small-bore proposals he used to disparage.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president who walked into the House chamber last night was in a tough spot. The country is in a sour mood about the economy, about Washington and about his own leadership. So he tried something new for the traditional one-word evaluation of the nation's well-being.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.

LIASSON: And the Mr. Obama rejected the widespread expectation that nothing much can get done in Washington, declaring that he believes 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.


OBAMA: Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.

LIASSON: The shrinking middle class and the widening gap between the rich and the poor is the president's big theme this year. He's called income inequality the defining challenge of our time. But last night, he gave that phrase a new twist.


OBAMA: Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.

LIASSON: There were no new calls to tax the rich. Mr. Obama's emphasis was on growth and upward mobility, not redistribution. That's an approach with more potential to get bipartisan support.

And instead of trying to cure Washington's bitter partisan divisions, or continue the mostly futile effort to convince Republicans to pass his agenda, the president had a new strategy, borne of necessity: He will work around Congress and use the authority of his own office.


OBAMA: What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. 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.

LIASSON: The president wants Congress to raise the minimum wage, fund universal pre-K and expand the earned income tax credit. But he also laid out a list of initiatives that he planned to enact on his own, using his executive powers, including a new government-backed private retirement savings plan and a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for new federal contract workers.


OBAMA: To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don't have to wait for Congress to act. Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example.

LIASSON: The new federal contract minimum wage will only affect several hundred thousand people. It's an example of how much smaller the president's ambitions are this year, compared to his earlier, more sweeping proposals on health care, financial regulation, gun control or climate change. But there is one area where the White House is optimistic about making progress with Congress.


OBAMA: Finally, if we're serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement and fix our broken immigration system.

LIASSON: The president was careful not to antagonize Republicans on this issue, perhaps hoping to preserve the possibility that House Republicans might actually pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul this year.

On the other hand, there was no olive branch about Obamacare, and no mea culpa about its disastrous debut. Instead, the president delivered a vigorous defense of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans plan to make the centerpiece of their 2014 campaigns.

Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping Americans, he said.


OBAMA: Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles.

LIASSON: The speech was heavily focused on domestic policy, but Mr. Obama did hail the coming end of the war in Afghanistan. And he defended his diplomatic overture to Iran, repeating his pledge to veto any bill Congress sent him to increase sanctions on Iran while the talks about Iran's nuclear weapons program are underway. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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