Obama Proposes Ambitious Agenda In Address To Nation

Jan 29, 2014
Originally published on January 29, 2014 12:49 pm
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President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech with enthusiasm last night. Facing a Congress that has often frustrated him, as well as sagging poll numbers, the president offered a list of proposals Congress could pass, and a series of plans he could enact alone if they don't.

The president addressed major issues, like inequality, education and energy, yet also put forward the kind of small-bore proposals he used to disparage.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president who walked into the House chamber last night was in a tough spot. The country is in a sour mood about the economy, about Washington and about his own leadership. So he tried something new for the traditional one-word evaluation of the nation's well-being.

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LIASSON: And the Mr. Obama rejected the widespread expectation that nothing much can get done in Washington, declaring that he believes 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

LIASSON: The shrinking middle class and the widening gap between the rich and the poor is the president's big theme this year. He's called income inequality the defining challenge of our time. But last night, he gave that phrase a new twist.

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LIASSON: There were no new calls to tax the rich. Mr. Obama's emphasis was on growth and upward mobility, not redistribution. That's an approach with more potential to get bipartisan support.

And instead of trying to cure Washington's bitter partisan divisions, or continue the mostly futile effort to convince Republicans to pass his agenda, the president had a new strategy, borne of necessity: He will work around Congress and use the authority of his own office.

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LIASSON: The president wants Congress to raise the minimum wage, fund universal pre-K and expand the earned income tax credit. But he also laid out a list of initiatives that he planned to enact on his own, using his executive powers, including a new government-backed private retirement savings plan and a raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for new federal contract workers.

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LIASSON: The new federal contract minimum wage will only affect several hundred thousand people. It's an example of how much smaller the president's ambitions are this year, compared to his earlier, more sweeping proposals on health care, financial regulation, gun control or climate change. But there is one area where the White House is optimistic about making progress with Congress.

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LIASSON: The president was careful not to antagonize Republicans on this issue, perhaps hoping to preserve the possibility that House Republicans might actually pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul this year.

On the other hand, there was no olive branch about Obamacare, and no mea culpa about its disastrous debut. Instead, the president delivered a vigorous defense of the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans plan to make the centerpiece of their 2014 campaigns.

Let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping Americans, he said.

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LIASSON: The speech was heavily focused on domestic policy, but Mr. Obama did hail the coming end of the war in Afghanistan. And he defended his diplomatic overture to Iran, repeating his pledge to veto any bill Congress sent him to increase sanctions on Iran while the talks about Iran's nuclear weapons program are underway. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.