Larry Downing/AP

Obama’s State of the Union Reasserts Executive Authority

The president focuses on reducing economic inequality and creating jobs, in part through executive orders.

President Obama on Tuesday night issued a plea to Congress to move beyond “the rancorous argument over the size of the federal government” to make 2014 “a year of action,” while announcing a dozen executive orders aimed at rebuilding infrastructure, consolidating federal training programs and raising the wages of federal contractors. 

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said in his fifth State of the Union address. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. 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.” 

The president’s plans for a rash of executive orders drew a rebuke before the speech from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said if Obama tried to “ignore the will of the Congress, he’s going to run into a brick wall.”

In a nearly 75-minute speech, Obama defended his landmark healthcare plan, touted economic growth and called for tax reform, a minimum wage hike, universal preschool and a fixed immigration system. He also praised American troops preparing to depart from Afghanistan.

But Obama blasted Washington gridlock, saying when “debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.” 

While simultaneously asking Congress’s help, the president asserted his plans to act with executive branch authority. “We’ll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer,” he said. “But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.” Federal agencies, he added, have completed a comprehensive review to identify best practices, such as having multiple agencies review a project at the same time, instead of consecutively. 

Other executive action include launching four new manufacturing innovation institutes this year, with the departments of Energy and Defense working with private-sector partners. 

Obama said he would soon announce a governmentwide program-by-program review of federal training programs led by Vice President Joe Biden. He announced an expansion of the Federal Communications Commission’s initiative to connect 15,000 schools to better broadband technology, including new philanthropic partnerships with companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon.

To bring overseas jobs back home, the White House said in a fact sheet that Obama would expand the Commerce Department’s SelectUSA, the first ever “whole-of-government” effort to attract investment through a single point of contact to which investors can go for opportunities.

The fact sheet also committed Obama to “ending Fannie and Freddie as we know them,” saying those government-sponsored enterprises that played a role in the 2008 financial crisis represented a “failed business model” but the president did not mention Fannie and Freddie during the address and the pledge is not in the official transcript of the speech.

The executive order most geared to the federal workforce in Obama’s address was his plan announced earlier Tuesday to require “federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour -- because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” Obama said. 

Obama’s plan to raise the contractor minimum wage drew criticism from the Professional Services Council, a contractors’ trade group. “Federal contractors providing services of the type the president’s order will cover already pay a wage dictated by the Department of Labor under the Service Contract Act,” said the group’s president and CEO Stan Soloway in a Tuesday statement that welcomed a dialogue on the issue.

He added that contractors “are deeply concerned with any implication that federal contractors are paying substandard wage…. There is natural concern that, amid a national debate over the minimum wage, government contractors are being uniquely singled out.”

Watching the speech from the House chamber gallery, were 23 special guests invited by the White House, including military heroes, business executives and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who has embraced the Affordable Care Act in his state. The military guests included Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger partially paralyzed after 10 deployments in Afghanistan, and Adm. Michelle Howard, the deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, who is also the first female four-star admiral and the first African-American female to earn the rank of four stars. 

In an unusual development, the Republicans offered no less than four responses to the 2014 State of the Union, from Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. Rodgers, chair of the House Republican Conference, gave the official rebuttal to the president’s SOTU from the Republican Party.

Rodgers said her address offered “a more hopeful, Republican vision – one that empowers you, not the government. It’s one that champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.” After criticizing Obama’s notion of inequality and pursuit of the Affordable Care Act, Rodgers said Republicans advance a different approach because “we believe in a government that trusts people and doesn’t limit where you finish because of where you started.”