Much has changed since President Obama's last State of the Union address. Buoyed by his commanding re-election and job approval highs, Obama laid out an ambitious agenda that was derailed by various factors from the IRS and National Security Agency scandals to the deeply flawed launch of his signature health care law — as well as Republicans' unrelenting resistance to cooperating with him.
In his fifth State of the Union address delivered Tuesday night, Obama invoked the spirit of opportunity, action and optimism. He began his remarks by noting the progress the nation has made despite the gridlock that exists between Capitol Hill and the White House, including a rebounding housing market, a strong manufacturing sector, less reliance on foreign oil and deficits cut by more than half.
He gave American citizens much of the credit for that progress, and took lawmakers to task for allowing partisanship to get in the way and going so far as to shut down government and threaten the nation's credit rating.
“Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations," he said.
Timing is everything. And although there are close to three years left in Obama's presidency, there's a sense of urgency to get as much as possible done as swiftly as possible before lawmakers' priorities shift elsewhere.
Early on, Obama made it clear that while he wants very much to work with Congress on myriad issues, including access to higher education, expanding employment and homeownership opportunities, raising the minimum wage, helping Americans prepare for retirement and more, he's prepared to use his executive authority to move forward with his agenda without lawmakers.
"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."
Among the executive orders he plans to implement is a measure to increase to $10.10 the minimum hourly wage for individuals working on new federal service contracts and urged Congress to follow his lead by raising the minimum wage nationwide.
"This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It doesn’t involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise," he said.
Throughout his remarks, the president stressed the themes of opportunity and upward mobility and how the "strength of our work ethic" helps Americans achieve "the scope of our dreams. That's how "the son of a barkeeper" was able to become speaker of the House he observed, and how the son of a single mom was able to become president.
"Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise," he said.
Before the speech, Cummings said that the president needed to reassure the American public that most of the problems that plagued the launch of his signature health care law are in the past and highlight its advantages and the positive impact access to affordable, quality health care is having on millions of people's lives.
As the Republicans and Democrats prepare to battle for control of both the House and the Senate in the 2014 and 2016 elections, the president reminded them of the Supreme Court decision that civil rights and other activists argue significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Elijah Cummings praised the speech and said Obama laid out an agenda that would make the best use of the time he has left in office.
"There are a lot of people in urgent need of help. There are people who are unemployed, people who until recently didn't have health insurance, children who aren't getting a proper education," the Maryland lawmaker told BET.com. "He made the case that we've got to work on all of those issues to make our country better."
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