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Obama to emphasize executive action in State of the Union

BY and   January 28, 2014 at 9:15 AM EDT

President Obama works on a draft of his State of the Union address in the Oval Office Monday at the White House. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Fresh off his 2012 re-election victory and second inaugural, with approval ratings above 50 percent, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address last year to call for bold action on issues such as tax reform, climate change, gun control legislation and immigration reform.

Now, a week into the sixth year of his presidency, with polls revealing an intense pessimism about the direction of the country and dwindling faith in its leaders, Mr. Obama is expected to steer clear of far-reaching goals and focus instead on what can be achieved — through the legislative process, or, if need be, unilateral action.

The president signaled that change in approach during a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago, saying he did not intend to wait for Congress to act in order to move forward with his agenda of economic mobility and income inequality. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” the president said at the time.

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It’s a message his aides have hammered home in the days leading up to Tuesday’s speech. “You can be sure that the president fully intends to use his executive authority to use the unique powers of the office to make progress on economic opportunity,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

The administration gave an early sign of what to expect Tuesday night, feeding reports the president plans to take executive action requiring that some federal contract workers, such as janitors and construction workers, be paid at least $10.10 an hour. The New York Times’ Peter Baker has the details:

The order, which Mr. Obama will highlight in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night, is meant to underscore an increasing willingness by the president to bypass Congress if lawmakers continue to resist his agenda, aides said. After a year in which most of his legislative priorities went nowhere, Mr. Obama is seeking ways to make progress without cooperation on Capitol Hill.

The minimum wage provides an example of what he has in mind. Mr. Obama called on Congress during last year’s State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for workers across the board, only to watch the idea languish on Capitol Hill, where opponents argued it would hurt business and stifle job creation. With prospects for congressional action still slim, Mr. Obama is using the executive order covering federal contractors to go as far as he can go on his own.

The president’s executive action game plan does carry the risk of inflaming tensions with congressional Republicans already frustrated by the administration’s handling of relations with lawmakers.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, blasted the strategy on Monday’s NewsHour. “That’s giving up on the Congress, but more importantly, it’s giving up on the Constitution,” Blunt said. “The president needs to lead us out of this, rather than to be the person who says, nothing can be done about this, so I’m just going to do what I can do by myself.”

The president will also have to overcome the challenge of a public that has become increasingly worried about the direction of the country.

According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.pdf), 63 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

NBC’s Mark Murray highlights another finding from the survey:

In more tough numbers for the president, only a combined 40 percent say they are “optimistic and confident” or “satisfied and hopeful” about the president’s remaining time in office. By contrast, a combined 59 percent say they are “uncertain and wondering” or “pessimistic and worried.”

If there is a silver lining for the president, it is that Congress is held in even lower regard, with just a 13 percent approval rating. A majority of respondents (51 percent) also said they believed Republicans are too inflexible in their negotiations with the president.

The poll also found solid support for Mr. Obama’s priorities, including access to preschool education, closing corporate tax loopholes and raising the minimum wage, giving him a base on which to build support for his agenda. The president will begin that push Tuesday night, and take his message on the road for a two-day swing through Maryland, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Pennsylvania starting Wednesday.


  • House Speaker John Boehner is expected to issue a list of extensive immigration principles Wednesday at a three-day GOP retreat in Maryland. Despite pushback from some conservatives, the House Republican leadership’s plan will include a path to legal status for illegal immigrants in the country, the New York Times reports.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that her biggest regret during the four years she served as the nation’s top diplomat was the death of four Americans in the terror attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
  • The lawmakers negotiating the long-awaited farm bill have reached a deal. It preserves most food stamp programs and farm subsidies and could come to a vote on Wednesday.
  • GOP Senators released new legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act to bring health care under state control.
  • Politico rounds up more of the president and first lady’s guests for the State of the Union. They include the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, an immigrant who is eligible for deferred action from deportation, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.
  • Roll Call’s Meredith Shiner profiled Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Il., who is seeking re-election in 2016.
  • Florida could be the next state to legalize medical marijuana. On Monday the Florida Supreme Court allowed an initiative legalizing medical marijuana to appear on the ballot in November.
  • Clay Pell, grandson of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, is expected to formally announce his campaign for governor of Rhode Island on Tuesday. The 32-year-old Democrat is married to former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan.
  • Former Virginia GOP Sen. John Warner endorsed Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s re-election bid Monday, dealing a blow to Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who recently launched his campaign.
  • Fixing the economy is at the top of Americans’ to-do list for Congress, a Pew Research Center survey showed Monday. NewsHour Desk Assistant Zachary Treu rounded up the survey’s highlights.
  • Mr. Obama is relatively unpopular in states that will be key for Democratic Senate candidates in 2014, such as Montana, Arkansas and Alaska, a Gallup poll found. While the president is most popular in Hawaii, D.C. and Maryland, he is least popular in Wyoming, West Virginia and Utah.
  • N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s support from political moderates has suffered a serious blow since recent revelations about his administration’s involvement in closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge. The 44 percent favorability from moderates he enjoyed in October has been cut in half, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.
  • Reid Wilson of the Washington Post writes how Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has quietly pushed for the state’s top female leaders to become Iowa’s first woman sent to Congress.
  • New York Times Gotham columnist Michael Powell hears from the artist whom New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno accused of contract fraud.
  • Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., is bringing Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to the State of the Union, although Pascrell said the invitation has nothing to do with the bridge scandal that has made Sokolich famous. Sokolich actually endorsed Pascrell’s opponent, Steve Rothman, in his 2012 primary.
  • Politico’s John Aloysius Farrell looks at the ill-fated responses to the president’s annual address, known as “The State of the Union Curse.”
  • The Senate Majority PAC has purchased $225,000 in television ads to maintain retiring Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat in Iowa. Congressman Bruce Braley, who is running to replace Harkin, has been the subject of many negative ads run by the teams of six GOP candidates.


Ruth Tam, Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathe contributed to this report. For more political coverage, visit our politics page. Sign up here to receive the Morning Line in your inbox every morning. Questions or comments? Email Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org. Follow the politics team on Twitter: