US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has promised a “year of action” in his annual State of the Union address, saying he will bypass Congress to tackle economic inequality.
Mr Obama said that, faced with gridlock on Capitol Hill, he would turn to other methods which would yield smaller yet achievable goals.
In a speech seen as a rallying cry for November’s mid-term elections, he used the address on Tuesday night to reel off a list of things that he wanted – and threw down the gauntlet to Congress to act.
Last year was Capitol Hill’s most inactive in history, amid rancour over Mr Obama’s healthcare law and the 16-day government shutdown over the budget.
In the speech, Mr Obama said: “After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.
“The question for everyone in this chamber is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”
The speech, which lasted just over an hour, seemed a roll call of things Mr Obama wanted to do to secure his legacy.
He wanted tougher gun control laws, yet Congress has rejected them. He wanted to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, but has failed to do so. He wanted action on the economy, but was only able to offer a review of job training and a new retirement savings bond.
Mr Obama’s problems were crystalised by his pledge on raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 (£4.30 an hour to £6). Without the approval of Congress, however, he cannot increase the minimum wage for all workers in the US, something he would clearly love to do.
Nevertheless, the speech was well received and Mr Obama was seen as confident and in control.
He won big cheers for saying that “inequality has deepened, upward mobility has stalled”.
He said that it was time to “do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode” and give women the equality they deserved.
On foreign policy, he said he had imposed “prudent limits” on the use of drone strikes, seen as a diplomatic disaster in countries such as Pakistan. Mr Obama vowed to move the US off a “permanent war footing” and said he would not allow troops to get caught up in “open-ended conflicts” like Afghanistan.
The biggest cheer of the night came when Mr Obama paid tribute to Sergeant Cory Remsburg, who was sitting next to Michelle Obama in the public gallery.
The Army Ranger was nearly killed by a roadside blast in Afghanistan, which left him with shrapnel in his brain. In an apparently unscripted moment, the two men saluted each other as the crowd applauded, including even the Republicans.
Meanwhile, a Republican lawmaker was caught on camera threatening a reporter who asked about his campaign finances after the Obama speech. Michael Grimm, who represents New York, told the journalist: “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”