WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will confront a politically divided Congress with a demand to expand economic mobility in the U.S., asserting in his State of the Union policy address Tuesday night that he will take action on his own if lawmakers fail to help shrink the income gap between the rich and the poor.
The speech comes at a time when Obama is struggling to generate second-term momentum ahead of November’s election, when control of Congress will be at stake.
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 message in recent months. But with the election campaign looming, there is little indication the president will win over Republicans 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 will ensure that is more than just an empty promise.
Obama has been tinkering with the speech in his typical fashion, writing out notes longhand on yellow legal pads and scribbling edits on drafts typed out by his speech-writing 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 online version of the speech that will feature charts and statistics about the president’s proposals as he is speaking.
While each of Obama’s speeches to Congress has centered on the economy, the challenges have changed as the U.S. 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.
Obama has struggled to gain traction on Capitol Hill for many of the economic initiatives he supports, including reinstating unemployment insurance for more than 1 million Americans who have been out of work for a long time. With that in mind, White House officials say the president’s speech will include announcements on policies he will undertake on his own. While officials would not detail the specific initiatives, they did say they would center on job training and boosting retirement security.
The president is also expected to announce steps to address long-term unemployment, including a plan to generate commitments from the private sector to hire people who have been out of work for extended periods. Obama is expected to hold an event at the White House next week focused on that effort.
But broader initiatives will still need congressional approval, including increasing the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education programs. Both 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 the 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 think tank with close ties to the White House. “People are very focused on more support for workers in this tight economy.”
Obama is also expected to renew his call for Congress to overhaul the nation’s patchwork immigration laws. The effort gained momentum last year when the Senate passed a landmark bipartisan bill, but the legislation stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives. While passage of a comprehensive immigration law would mark a significant achievement for the president, he is expected to be largely restrained in his public efforts in order to give Republican lawmakers room to maneuver on an issue that had proven to be politically challenging for the party, whose conservative base is wary of creating a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.
The president will also tout his signature health care law, which has rebounded somewhat after a disastrous launch in October. The administration announced Friday that about 3 million people have enrolled in federal- and state-run health insurance exchanges, though the percentage of young, healthy people signing up will likely need to increase by the March 31 deadline in order to keep costs down.
In keeping with tradition, Obama will travel the country in the days after his State of the Union address, with stops planned in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Republicans have their own ideas for what they would like to see Obama outline Tuesday. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the Republican wish list includes “expanding trade, approving the Keystone pipeline and promoting education and skills training for those still struggling in this economy.” The Keystone pipeline would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
The traditional State of the Union response from the president’s opposing party will be delivered this year by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House. The move appears to be in part an effort by Republicans to ratchet up their appeals to women, who have sided with Democrats in large numbers in recent presidential elections.
While Obama is currently balancing several high-profile foreign policy matters, international issues are expected to get only a brief mention in Tuesday’s speech. The president is expected to note that the long war in Afghanistan will formally end later this year, though he is not expected to announce any decisions on whether to keep some American troops there after 2014.
Obama will also tout progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are scheduled to resume in February, and may press Congress to hold off on a new package of economic sanctions while the talks are in progress. The president has cast the negotiations as the best chance for peacefully revolving the international community’s nuclear dispute with Iran, but even he has said the odds of reaching a comprehensive agreement are only 50-50.