State of the Union: Obama promises action on inequality


US President Barack Obama: "Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do"

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US President Barack Obama has promised "with or without Congress" to tackle economic inequality, in his annual State of the Union address.

He pledged to take steps without legislation wherever possible, announcing a rise in the minimum wage for new federal contract staff.

On Iran, he said he would veto any new sanctions that risked derailing talks.

The Democratic president is facing some of his lowest approval ratings since taking office in 2009.

"Let's make this a year of action," Mr Obama said in Tuesday night's speech.

Noting that inequality has deepened and upward mobility stalled, he would offer "a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class".

"America does not stand still - and neither will I," he said. "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."

Time running out

Just over a year after his re-election, Mr Obama must contend with determined opposition from the Republican Party, which controls the House of Representatives and has the numbers in the Senate to block his agenda.

Gone is the audacity of hope. This State of the Union address didn't promise big changes on anything - there was no transformation on offer here.

But this address had the virtue at least of touching on bread-and-butter issues that genuinely affect millions of Americans - savings plans for workers who don't have them, health insurance, training schemes and the minimum wage, just to name a few. For poorer Americans improvements in any of those would make a huge difference.

This was Mr Obama's last best chance to reset his presidency. I'm not sure he managed a major shift. But he showed where his focus is and made a compelling case for at least trying to improve social mobility - with or without Congress.

Time is running short before Washington DC turns its attention to the 2016 race to elect his successor, threatening to sideline him even with three years remaining in office.

During his address, Mr Obama appealed to Congress to restore unemployment insurance that recently expired for 1.6 million people, and asked Republicans to stop trying to repeal his signature healthcare overhaul.

The botched rollout of the website on which Americans could sign up for healthcare has dented the president's popularity.

Mr Obama stressed the importance of early childhood schooling, better value university education, and equal opportunities in the workplace for women.

He also appealed to Congress to approve a rise in the national minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. His executive order raising the hourly rate of federal contract workers to $10.10 (£6.10) will only apply to future contracts.

House Speaker John Boehner said the impact would be "close to zero" and warned that such a move would cost jobs. He told reporters his party would watch to ensure the president did not exceed his authority through the use of such executive actions.

Republican rebuttals

The president also urged the Republican House of Representatives to support a broad overhaul of the US immigration system, saying it would "make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone".

One American child in five lives below the poverty line - the BBC visits Washington DC's deprived Anacostia district

Last year, the Senate passed a bill that included a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.

The House has thus far declined to hold a vote on that legislation, although in recent days US media have reported the chamber's Republican leaders are weighing a series of more limited measures.

On foreign policy, Mr Obama pledged to:

  • support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future
  • back the opposition in Syria "that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks"
  • make sure any long-term deal on Iran's nuclear programme is "based on verifiable action"

Rand Paul: "Government spending doesn't work"

He also said that, with major US operations in Afghanistan due to end, "this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay".

After Mr Obama's speech, three Republicans offered rebuttals.

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers gave the official response on behalf of the Republican Party, calling on Mr Obama to take action "by empowering people, not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs".

Republican Kentucky Senator and presumed 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul, a favourite of the party's libertarian wing, released a taped address.

"Economic growth will come when we lower taxes for everyone," he said. "Government spending doesn't work."

Utah Senator Mike Lee offered a response on behalf of the populist, anti-tax tea party movement, saying he shared the frustration of Americans with "an ever-growing government that somehow thinks it is OK to lie to, spy on and even target its own citizens."

The US has one of the highest income gaps in the developed world


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  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Did I just see a hint of some testicles there Barack?

    And at what point will you back down to the Republicans? As is the pattern of behaviour we are used to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Surely the gap between rich and poor is to be closed by the individual with intuition and hard work, not by handouts. That phrase about the so called gap has become a cliche. Partially off topic, but it has always bothered me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    23 Minutes ago

    "It's very simple, just set an equal tax rate for all. Then inequality will be solved."

    Oh will it? Because I'm pretty sure 20% off £15000 a year means a hell of a lot to someone, whilst 20% from £1.5million a year someone wouldn't even feel.

    Whilst wages don't go hand in hand with merit and are pretty unfair (teacher, soldier, nurse vs investment banker) then no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    @31.Milo Minderbinder

    [Cameron] just announced the removal of 3000 regulations and 80,000 pages of "red tape" on small businesses and clearly didn't need the approval of the EU to do so. So, obviously the role of the EU in "imposing" "red tape" on business is way overstated.
    Stated intentions - nothing has been removed nor will be.

    How did 3000 regulations got there? EU diktat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    By equality I presume he means worldwide and will stop beating the rest of the world in with his superior forces?

    Or maybe that he wants more of the world equalised by becoming another part of America so he means he will bomb more nations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    If only our politicians showed such commitment to reducing the terrible inequality that exist in the country. Its not very often the president of the USA appears to be far left of our government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    I'm in the US on a business trip til next week. Their TV news the other night featured a big smear on Hilary Clinton who wants Obama's job. Republicans are bashing her on the basis of what her husband did with Monica Lewinsky decades ago. Republicans are pathetic. And they seem to own the media here. Obama is surrounded by vipers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    Whilst American elections rely on $1billion+ of campaign funding, I can't see any US president putting the people before lobbies that put millions in the pot.

    Just more talk no action as they slash food stamps whilst at the same time subsidising big firms

    This is also the model all our UK main parties (and yes that includes UKIP) would love to emulate too

    These people don't really want equality

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    I wish president Obama was our prime minister instead of that awful David Cameron and his cronies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    The Tea Party is to the Republicans what Militant Tendency was to the Labour Party in the 1980's. There's a stain of inelectability for any political party which can't stop itself being taken over by a parasite that could never get elected on it's own.
    The GOP will be out of power until it kicks the Tea Party into touch and demonstrates it can at least govern itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Surely the opposing parties of whatever country should join forces to sort out their nation's poverty? No-one should be left in a situation of starvation etc....even supermarkets can play their part and donate waste food to the local soup kitchen charities.

    Cross party bickering will get them no where.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    Just occasionally amongst the bizarre europhile and extreme political rants on HYS there are profound gems of wisdom - see @169 Paul:

    "As long a wealth is taxed less than work, the money moves to the rich...same in the UK.

    It's astonishing to reflect that work itself; the activity that gives us everything we value; is actually punished harshly by most governments worldwide."


  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    I thought the USA was the place where any poor person was able, and encouraged, to make themselves rich. Is it now to be the place where it's not worth the effort because everyone must be 'equal'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    31. Milo Minderbinder. No, he announced that that's what he wants to do. Not that they have done. The reality is, when they start to look at removing this red tape, they'll find much of it is tied in to treaties the UK have signed up to in Europe and they won't be able to do a thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Raising the min. wage for new federal contract staff? Hmm... what is that, like 12 people?

    He's apparently not talking about raising the wages of millions of Americans stuck in low paying jobs which are company-mandated as part-time to avoid paying employee benefits.

    This sounds helpful for a handful of janitors in Washington D.C., God love 'em. But what about everyone else?

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    So many things you want to be done by government are never done but said often.Raising federal minimum wages is easier then raising wages all over.It is better if Federal borrowing rates are increased.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    "Still the GOP hates Obama as he is a black Prez"

    ..or because he is a democrat; ie their political foe?

    The idea that people could only oppose Obama because of his colour is a great story though

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    It used to be that the harder you worked the more rewards you got. Not any more, now the harder you work the richer your boss gets, and they keep it all to themselves. The rich are not just richer, they are greedier too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Omegon @ 176 said:
    "Modern politics just doesn't work. We need to get shot of it and bring in something that does work. On both sides of the water"

    How right you are.

    Part of the problem is the lack of persistency and the focus on short-termism.

    Anyone in power for less than (say) 20 years cannot plan for the future.

    I don't know the answer, but modern democracy is only for minorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    5% owe 80% of the wealth - who really wants to live there ???


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