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Americas

Obama vows to fight poverty with or without Congress

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-29

US President Barack Obama looked to energise his sluggish second term with his biggest speech of the year on Tuesday, when he focused on tackling disparities between rich and poor and pledged to sidestep Congress in order to push through reforms.

Obama’s State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, and the millions of Americans watching at home, served as the opening salvo in the fight for control of Congress ahead of midterm elections in November this year.

Obama sought to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class by focusing on economic mobility and the gap between the wealthy and poor. “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled,” he said. “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.” Pledging to act on his own if Congress should try to block his efforts, Obama was greeted with shouts of “Do it!” from many members of his party.

“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’s presidency, now a year into its second term, has been bedevilled by political gridlock. His speech was aimed at convincing an increasingly sceptical public that he still wields power in Washington, even if he can’t overcome divisions in the two houses. Crippled by a series of legislative failures in 2013, White House aides say they’re now redefining success not by what Obama can get through Congress, but by what actions he can take on his own.

Firm on healthcare, minimum wage

The key annual address came as Obama is trying to recover from the blundered rollout of his signature healthcare overhaul in October, which sent his job approval ratings tumbling to around 40 percent. (An AP-GfK poll this month found that 45 percent of those surveyed now approve of him.)

He said he didn't expect Republicans to agree with the Affordable Care Act – known as “Obamacare” – but urged his political opponents to give up their repeated attempts to do away with it. “I know that the American people aren’t interested in re-fighting old battles,” he said.

Obama unveiled an array of executive actions that don’t require Congressional approval, including increasing the minimum wage for some federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 and making it easier for millions of low-income Americans to save for retirement.

His proposals for action by lawmakers were slim and largely focused on established ideas that have gained little traction over the past year. He pressed Congress to revive a stalled immigration overhaul – which he has hope of winning support for as Republicans try to build support among Hispanics. “To every mayor, governor, and state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on,” he said.

The US president also called for new legislation expanding an income tax credit for workers without children.

Iran and Syria govern foreign mentions

While domestic issues dominated the speech, Obama also gave a firm warning to congress that he would veto any sanctions bill that would threaten to derail talks with Iran, even as he acknowledged that the talks may not succeed.

Obama said that if the talks do fail, he will call for more sanctions. “But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance,” he said, “then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war”.

On Syria, he pledged “to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve – a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear”.

He said the US “will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific” and called its alliance with Europe “the strongest the world has ever known”. Regarding the current turmoil in Ukraine, he said, “we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future”.

Republican response

Republicans, who saw their own approval ratings fall in 2013, have also picked up the refrain of income inequality in recent months, though they blame the widening gap between rich and poor on Obama’s economic policies.

In the party’s official response to Obama, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Congressional leader from Washington state, said the Republican Party “champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you”.

Republicans have thwarted most of Obama’s initiatives, including gun control and climate change reform, and this year’s elections in November make it even less likely that they will rally behind his proposals. Still, the partisan conflict has eased somewhat from when Republicans shut down the government for 16 days in autumn and brought the country to the brink of default, a move which brought the party disfavour among the public.

The annual State of the Union speech is accompanied by great pomp and ceremony, with Washington’s most powerful figures in attendance, including cabinet members, diplomats and supreme court justices.

Tuesday’s event drew an eclectic mix of visitors – among those sitting with first lady Michelle Obama were two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as Jason Collins, an openly gay former NBA player, while Republican House Speaker John Boehner brought business owners from his home state of Ohio who say Obama’s health care overhaul is hurting their companies.

(FRANCE with AP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-01-29

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