President Obama sent a clear message to the nation's notoriously do-nothing Congress Tuesday during his sixth State of the Union address: Be prepared to act on a litany of domestic issues -- or I will.
Strong words from a president who just wrapped up his most tumultuous year yet in Washington, D.C., and is no lock to recover enough political capital to push through a focused, social-heavy policy agenda over the next 12 months. Despite doubts and dwindling poll numbers, however, Obama said he plans to hit the ground running, as he made clear Tuesday night, laying out a commitment to rein in income inequality in the U.S. The public is, for the most part, behind him: A recent Pew Research Center survey reveals many Americans agree that the nation's economy "unfairly favors the wealthy." The president won't lessen the gap between the haves and have-littles all by himself, but his words Tuesday night make it clear he'll carry that flag forward.
"Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. And inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled," Obama said. "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."
On other economic fronts, the president already has set out on his own. Obama announced an executive order that raises the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers, an increase that would take effect at the beginning of 2015 -- with or without congressional approval. But he'll need legislative help for part two of his plan to increase the federal minimum wage -- a boost for all low-income workers, also to $10.10 an hour. He'll have to negotiate the most maligned, divided Congress in decades to reach a deal -- a task the president might not have made any easier thanks to a handful of charged statements on climate change, immigration, gun control and Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.
But Obama made it clear Tuesday night that he has no problem sidestepping Congress.
"Some (proposals) require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I," Obama 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."
When Obama delivered his last State of the Union address one year ago, he stood tall following an impressive re-election victory over Mitt Romney three months earlier. What a difference a year makes. Gone now is much of Obama's swagger, the consequence of his having lost a great deal of the public's trust. The president has seen his approval ratings plummet -- into the low-40 percent range -- thanks to a slow (but steady) economic recovery and a flubbed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Little, if any, progress has been made on immigration reform and gun violence management, and the ongoing crisis in Syria has made Obama appear weak, in some eyes, on the world stage.
Now, Obama will look to further his policies without Congressional disruption, a course of action not without hazards. Five years into his presidency, this commander-in-chief, renowned for his soaring rhetoric, must make good on his ambitious vision. Apparently, he'll pursue it own his own, if necessary.