President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America's middle class in a State of the Union speech that he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year.
Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by issuing a raft of executive orders - a move likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans.
Obama's actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted to an outpouring of frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and able to slow the president's agenda.
"I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama told the lawmakers gathered for the annual speech. "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."
Obama's orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers, creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
He said he was driven to act by the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that while the stock market has soared, average wages have barely budged.
"Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "Upward mobility has stalled. 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. And too many still aren't working at all."
Obama's strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on small-bore initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle-class workers.
He did, however, renew appeals for actions that still await congressional approval. He called for Congress to give him the authority to speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal held up by Democratic opposition.
Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his healthcare law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about how to respond to Syria's civil war.
Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words like "divided," "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the country, the poll showed.
Obama dwelled mostly on domestic issues in his hour-long address, but warned Congress he would veto any effort to increase economic sanctions on Iran as he tries to reach a comprehensive deal with Tehran to ensure it does not obtain a nuclear weapons capability.
On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he tempered his criticism of Republicans who have held up the law, with signs of possible progress emerging in recent days among House Republicans.
Obama also held back from taking a step that immigration reform advocates have called on him to take. He did not take executive action to freeze the deportations of parents of children brought to the United States illegally.
"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.
On healthcare, the issue that rocked his presidency and caused many Americans to lose confidence in him, Obama defended the overhaul law he signed in 2010 but did not dwell on it, urging Americans to sign up for medical insurance coverage by a March 31 deadline.
"I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."
Minimum Wage: ‘Give America A Raise’
To help Americans prepare for retirement, Obama will use executive authority to create a "starter" retirement savings account available through employers. He also wants to drop retirement tax breaks that apply to wealthy Americans already well positioned for retirement and increase the earned income tax credit for people without children. Through an executive order, Obama said he will raise the minimum wage for workers holding federal contract jobs to $10.10 and will continue pressing Congress to make that rate the prevailing federal minimum wage nationally.
Gender Pay Gap An 'Embarrassment'
Obama denounced America’s gender pay gap, and said it's time to end "workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode." “Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment," he said. "A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. .. [A woman] deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too.”
'Climate Change Is A Fact'
While he didn’t mention the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama highlighted several new and existing measures to expand clean energy production, chiefly by using executive powers that are not dependent on action by a divided Congress. Those measures include encouraging the use of natural gas in trucks, new EPA standards for heavy trucks, new environmental standards for oil and gas drilling on public lands, and new carbon pollution standards for power plants.
Reforming and Redesigning Education
Obama said another 15,000 schools and 20 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade will have access to high-speed internet service in the next two years as part of his plan to have 99 percent of American students on next-generation connectivity. He also renewed his call for pre-kindergarten schooling for all 4-year-olds, as well as innovation in preparing students for college and then making college more affordable for them.
Renews Call To Close Guantanamo For Sixth Time
The president renewed his old vow - dating back to the start of his presidency five years ago - to shut the internationally condemned jail at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. "This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay," Obama said. Obama stopped short of offering any new prescriptions on how he intends to empty Guantanamo of its remaining 155 prisoners. They were rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks and have been held without trial ever since.
No New News On Drone Use
The president mentioned measures already put in place to limit drone use, and noted an overall need to shift America’s focus from conflicts overseas. “Even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks - through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners - America must move off a permanent war footing," Obama said.
Kira Bindrim and Zoë Schlanger contributed reporting from New York.