WASHINGTON — Struggling to generate second-term momentum, President Barack Obama will confront a politically divided Congress with a demand to expand economic opportunity in America, asserting in his State of the Union address Tuesday that he will take action on his own if lawmakers fail to help shrink the income gap between the rich and the poor.
Obama’s broad themes may find some support among Republicans, who also have picked up the inequality mantle in recent months. But as Congress barrels toward the midterm elections, there’s little indication the president will win over the GOP 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’ll ensure that’s more than just an empty promise.
Previewing the president’s remarks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “He’ll certainly aim high. Presidents ought to aim high.”
Obama has been tinkering with the speech in his typical fashion, writing out notes long-hand on yellow legal pads and scribbling edits on drafts typed out by his speechwriting 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 version of the speech that will run online and feature charts and statistics about the president’s proposals as he’s speaking.
While each of Obama’s speeches to Congress has centered on the economy, the challenges have changed as the nation has moved away from the deep recession. While corporate profits and the financial markets have reached record highs, many Americans are struggling with long-term unemployment and stagnant salaries.
Increasing the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education programs are both seen by the White House as ways to increase economic opportunity for low- and middle-income Americans. The 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 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 Washington think tank with close ties to the White House. “People are very focused on more support for workers in this tight economy.”
Of course, there’s little guarantee Congress will act on issues that it largely ignored over the past year. With that in mind, advisers say Obama is determined to act on his own when lawmakers will not. One of the areas where aides say he sees opportunity is generating commitments from the private sector to hire people who have been out of work for extended periods of time.
“The president has made clear that he wants to re-emphasize the capacity that he as president has,” Carney said of the speech.
One area where Obama is expected to say he still needs Congress is overhauling the nation’s patchwork immigration laws. The effort gained momentum last year when the Senate passed a landmark bill, but the legislation stalled in the Republican-led House. While passage of a comprehensive immigration law would mark a significant achievement for the president, he’s expected to be largely restrained in his public efforts in order to give GOP lawmakers room to maneuver on an issue that had proven to be politically challenging for the party.
The president is also expected to tout the so-called Obamacare health 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 insurances 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.
Republicans have their own ideas for what they’d like to see Obama outline Tuesday. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the GOP wish list includes “expanding trade, approving the Keystone pipeline and promoting education and skills training for those still struggling in this economy.”
The traditional State of the Union response from the president’s opposing party will be delivered this year by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., 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’s 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.