Jan. 28, 2014— -- Facing a still sharply divided Congress, President Obama pledged to charge forward on his own to push a second-term agenda focused on rising worries about economic inequality and opportunity in his State of the Union address tonight.
The strategy is aimed at shifting emphasis to the power of the executive branch after many of his proposals remained unfinished or untouched in the halls of Congress in 2013.
"America does not stand still – and neither will I," Obama told lawmakers in a joint session at the Capitol. "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."
"Let's make this a year of action," he said.
This year, Obama faces the difficult challenge of repairing damage to his approval ratings from his own missteps and broad frustration with elected officials after a lengthy government shutdown in 2013. And he struck a forceful tone as he prepares to enter a crucial and narrow window of opportunity to accomplish what remains of his agenda before presidential politics further bogs Washington down.
Though he touted the economy's progress -- a low unemployment rate, rebounding housing market and lower deficits -- Obama said that the partisan debates over the size and scope of government have stymied progress on proposals to put more Americans back to work.
He said the upcoming year can be a "breakthrough year" for the country.
"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," Obama said. "Our job is to reverse these trends."
Tonight, Obama announced an increase in the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, and called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers.
But Republicans, in their official response to Obama's address, suggested that the proposals he put forward are insufficient.
"Tonight the president made more promises that sound good, but they won't solve the problems actually facing Americans," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who chairs the House Republican Conference.
Obama pledged to pursue proposals to address income inequality, economic mobility, and economic opportunity, with or without Congress.
Among the priorities are proposals Obama has put forward before: slashing bureaucracy to fast-track construction jobs, comprehensive reform of the tax code, boosting manufacturing and gun control legislation.
Obama called on Congress to support the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has so far gone nowhere in Congress. And he slammed workplace policies that he said belong in a bygone era.
"A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too," Obama said. "It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode.
A few proposals were met with bipartisan support. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, applauded in support of a proposal to reform job training programs to focus on filling the unemployed with jobs that need to be filled immediately.
And Obama pushed lawmakers again to follow through on comprehensive immigration reform, which passed in the Senate but was never taken up in the Republican-dominated House, which he said could shrink the deficit by almost $1 trillion in the next 20 years.
"And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams -- to study, invent and contribute to our culture -- they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone," Obama said.
McMorris Rodgers said that Republicans are also working on immigration reform legislation, a sign that perhaps legislation could have a future this year in Congress.
"And yes, it's time to honor our history of legal immigration," McMorris Rodgers said.
Obama also announced new initiatives, including a partnership with private tech and telecom companies to provide high-speed broadband in 15,000 American schools, a new retirement savings plan and a proposal to boost the Earned Income Tax Credit to provide more aid to single Americans without children.
The past year has also been a difficult one for the signature piece of legislation of Obama's presidency: his health care law.
The law's flawed rollout last fall set back much of Obama's agenda and has dampened public support for the bill.
But Obama doubled down, slamming congressional Republicans' "40-something" attempts to repeal the law, which he said helps to protect Americans' financial security.
"I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles," Obama said. "So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people and increase choice, tell America what you'd do differently."
Despite the challenges at home, Obama remains a wartime president.
This year, troop levels in Afghanistan are expected to fall to fewer than 40,000 by the end of the year, and Obama noted that the country must for the first time in more than a decade "move off a permanent war footing."
In recent months, Obama has struggled to contain the fallout from leaked secret documents detailing the National Security Agency's vast surveillance techniques. And he pledged again today to reform those programs to restore "public confidence" both at home and abroad.
He touted diplomatic progress in Syria and Iran.
But with Iran, he issued a stern warning to Congress to allow diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program to proceed without interference.
"Let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it," he said.