WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday night he will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract employees through executive order as part of a series of proposals to close income gaps in the United States and reassert the nation’s dominance in global economics and manufacturing. The promise of executive action highlighted the president fifth State of the Union address.
The proposals followed Obama’s call for “a year of action,” which he said depends on whether the government will help the progress or hinder it with “rancorous argument.”
This assertion of executive authority deviates from his tone at last year’s State of the Union address where he called for “reasonable compromise” and “collective effort.” His executive order on wages is indicative of his intent to create momentum behind broader minimum wage increases and other proposals that have met opposition and then died in Congress.
“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.”
Obama praised the economic strides America has made under his administration — the lowest unemployment rate in five years, a growing manufacturing sector, increased domestic oil production and growing interest in America as a place to invest.
“Business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest,” he said. “America is.”
The president urged increased access to jobs and education in order to allow Americans social mobility. He called on Vice President Joe Biden to lead reform of America’s training programs so that workers’ skills can meet employer needs. He also called for far-reaching, early education and restoration of the extended unemployment insurance that expired last year. That line was met with cheers from the Democrats and crickets from the Republicans.
Energy plays a major role in bringing jobs back to America, Obama said. He touted strides toward energy independence and Americans’ limited efforts to deal with climate change.
Obama said “America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.” He attributed the advances to booms in natural gas, oil and solar power.
“Climate change is a fact,” Obama said to a standing ovation. “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.”
But little has been accomplished legislatively.
Overhauling the current immigration laws also plays a role in economic growth by shrinking the deficit by almost $1 trillion, the president said.
“When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. Let’s get it done.”
Obama joked about the past year of partisan opposition over the Affordable Care Act, but touted the program’s benefits to newly insured Americans and asked Republicans not to continue fighting the law.
“I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” he said. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in re-fighting old battles.”
Speaking about foreign affairs, the president said the war in Afghanistan “will finally be over” this year, but the U.S. must “remain vigilant” elsewhere against threats from al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. He also said he would continue negotiations with Iran and veto any new sanctions bill from Congress.
“If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance — and we’ll know soon enough — then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations.”
He also promised reforms in drone usage, said the work of intelligence agencies depends on public confidence and added that “ the privacy of ordinary people” should not be violated.
He ended the speech with an anecdote about Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger in full dress uniform who was seated next to Michelle Obama in the visitors’ gallery. Remsburg is recovering from an injury caused by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan while on his tenth deployment.
“Men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy,” Obama said. But it is within our reach, he said.