US President Barack Obama has pledged more action on economic inequality in his annual State of the Union address. Obama called for cooperation and bipartisanship in order to achieve goals at home and abroad.
The speech, made to a joint session of Congress, was Obama’s opportunity to try to breathe new life into his second term after a year plagued by a divisive Congress and international tensions.
Obama pledged to bypass a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and take action on his own without legislation, where he could, to strengthen America’s middle class.
With a large part of Obama’s speech focusing on addressing economic inequality he said that despite four years of economic growth joblessness, deeper inequality and stalled economic mobility remain major issues.
“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. Our job is to reverse these trends.”
He called on Congress to pass a bill already introduced that would increase the federal minimum wage from 7.25 dollars (5.31 euros) an hour to 10.10 dollars. The measure would also, for the first time, tie the minimum wage to inflation.
Environment, healthcare, immigration in focus
Obama also talked about the need to tackle climate change and shift to a cleaner energy economy, a statement that could foreshadow more executive actions to reduce carbon emissions.
“Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did,” he said.
On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama encouraged Congress to work together to achieve an overhaul of the law this year. He said reforms would create thousands of jobs and boost the economy by $1 trillion over two decades.
On his healthcare initiative, Obama defended the overhaul law he signed in 2010.
“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.”
Shifting the focus abroad, Obama vowed continued support for Afghanistan after all US combat troops are removed from the country by the end of 2014. However, he called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a security agreement with Washington that would allow “a small force of Americans” to remain after combat operations end.
Obama also said that with the Afghan war ending, now is the time for Congress to lift restrictions on transferring detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba so that it can be closed this year.
Obama also reiterated his plans to reform US surveillance programs after details of mass spying were revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama said the intelligence community depends on “public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
The president also urged Congress to hold off on fresh sanctions against Iran, which is currently in talks over its controversial nuclear program.
“If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it,” he said.
Following Obama’s address, US Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the official Republican response, saying the Republican Party “champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”
She said Republicans will focus on creating jobs without increasing government spending, government bailouts and red tape, she said.
hc/ccp (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)