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Decrying Washington Stalemate, Obama Calls For 'Year Of Action'

With the country slowly digging itself out of recession, some of his legislative priorities buried under Washington's partisanship and his approval ratings at some of their lowest levels, President Obama called for "a year of action" during his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday.

During the roughly one-hour speech, Obama tried to balance his impatience with Washington with a call for a truce for the good of the country.

But absent cooperation, Obama said he would take executive action if he had to.

"I'm eager to work with all you," Obama said. "But America does not stand still — and neither will I. 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."

To that end, Obama announced that, taking a cue from companies that believe higher wages boost productivity and reduce turnover, he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour. The president then went on to challenge Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and "give America a raise."

Obama also announced the creation of a "starter" retirement savings program for workers and tasked Vice President Biden with overseeing "an across-the-board reform of America's training programs ... to train Americans with the skills employers need."

Despite a bitterly divided House chamber, Obama found common ground with his Republican counterparts when he spoke about immigration, American exceptionalism and inequality in the rate of pay between men and women.

Instead of casting blame, Obama made an economic argument for passing immigration reform and called on Congress to get it "done this year."

During the Republican response to the speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington state, embraced coming to some resolution over immigration. But she criticized Obama for making "promises that sound good but won't make things better."

Of course, when Obama turned to a defense of his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, the Republican half of the chamber sat, while Democrats delivered a standing ovation.

"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said to laughter. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."

The emotional highlight of the night was President Obama's telling the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was almost killed by a roadside bomb during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan.

Sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama, Remsburg received at least two minutes of applause from the chamber.

Despite surgeries and struggles, Remsburg never quit, Obama said.

"My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy," Obama said. "Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated; we're discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen."

We live blogged throughout the night, so if you want a detailed account of the State of the Union, keep reading. We've also posted a transcript of the speech here.

Update at 11:51 p.m. ET. A Modest Speech:

NPR's Mara Liasson sums up Obama speech like this:

"I thought it was a pretty modest speech; it wasn't very adversarial, no soaring rhetoric but he explained what he was going to do, which is he is going to use his own powers as much as possible by himself to advance the economic security of the middle class and those who want to get into it."

Update at 11:30 p.m. ET. A Roundup Of Headlines:

Here's what other news outlets are saying about Obama's State of the Union:

-- "Obama calls for 'year of action'; president vows to use his authority with new force" (Washington Post)

-- "The contrast between President Obama's State of the Union Address a year ago and the one he delivered Tuesday night is the difference between soaring ambitions — understandable for someone who had just decisively won a second term in the White House — and downsized dreams. It reflects a political journey from the aspirational to the achievable." (USA Today)

-- "In State of the Union, Obama Vows Solo Action on the Economy" (New York Times)

-- "Obama Seeks to Jump-Start Stalled Plans" (The Wall Street Journal)

Update at 10:37 p.m. ET. The Republican Response:

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers delivered the Republican response to President Obama.

Both Democrats and Republicans, McMorris said, want to make the United States better.

But Obama, said McMorris, "made more promises that sound good but won't make things better."

While McMorris criticized Obama, her message mostly stayed away from polemics. She painted a picture of an inclusive GOP, saying their goal is to close what she called an "opportunity gap" in the country.

Republicans, McMorris said, have a plan to close that gap without red tape and without more spending.

The GOP, McMorris said, "dreams big for everyone and turns its back on no one."

Update at 10:20 p.m. ET. An Emotional Closing:

Obama closed his one-hour speech on an emotional note. The overreaching theme was American exceptionalism. But it was the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg that brought the crowd to its feet for minutes.

Remsburg, the president explained, was nearly killed during his 10th deployment to Afghanistan.

Obama closed:

"Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again — and he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

" 'My recovery has not been easy,' he says. 'Nothing in life that's worth anything is easy.'

"Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.

"My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated; we're discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

"The America we want for our kids – a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us .... the way Cory summoned what is best in him — with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow — I know it's within our reach.

"Believe it."

Update at 10:07 p.m. ET. Foreign Policy:

Obama has now moved on to foreign policy.

About the war in Afghanistan, Obama says: "Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over."

On Guantanamo, Obama says: "With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay — because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world."

On Iran, Obama says: "If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today."

Obama followed that by renewing his vow to veto any legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," Obama said.

Update at 9:58 p.m. ET. A Defense Of Obamacare:

As expected, President Obama gave an impassioned defense of his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

Obama told the story of Amanda Shelley, who signed up for health care insurance through the federal marketplace, on Jan. 1. On Jan. 6, Obama said, she had emergency surgery.

"Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would've meant bankruptcy," Obama said. "That's what health insurance reform is all about — the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don't have to lose everything."

As you might also have expected, this is also the part of Obama's speech that resulted in the most partisan reaction. The Democratic half of the chamber gave a standing ovation, while the Republican half sat quietly.

Obama acknowledged that:

"Now, I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice — tell America what you'd do differently. Let's see if the numbers add up. But let's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans like Amanda."

Update at 9:50 p.m. ET. 'Give America A Raise':

Taking an example from companies like Costco — which, Obama says, believe higher wages boost productivity and reduce turnover — Obama will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a "fair wage" of at least $10.10 an hour.

Obama also called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to that same amount.

"This will help families," he said. "It doesn't involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise."

Update at 9:47 p.m. ET. Women Deserve Equal Pay:

The most robust applause so far? When Obama addressed inequality between men and women.

"Today, women make up about half our workforce," Obama said. " But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work."

Then he delivered the line that brought both sides of the chamber to their feet:

"It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. This year, let's all come together — Congress, the White House, and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street — to give every woman the opportunity she deserves. Because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds."

Update at 9:37 p.m. ET. Calls For Action On Immigration:

Obama calls on Congress to pass immigration reform "this year."

He got in and out of the issue quickly, tying the issue to economics instead of making the emotional plea.

"Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades," Obama said. "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. So let's get immigration reform done this year."

Update at 9:35 p.m. ET. 'Climate Change Is A Fact':

After outlining what he calls an "all of the above" energy strategy, Obama made this declaration:

"The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."

Update at 9:26 p.m. ET. Americans Are Moving Forward:

Like first lady Michelle Obama, whose Let's Move program has helped lower obesity rates for the first time in 30 years, he will move forward with initiatives on his own.

"The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward," Obama said. "They believe, and I believe, that here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams. That's what drew our forebears here. It's how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America's largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House."

Here Obama got a huge applause and made Speaker John Boehner, sitting behind him, blush. Obama finished his thought: "It's how the son of a single mom can be president of the greatest nation on Earth."

Update at 9:20 p.m. ET. Rails Against Congressional Gridlock:

After taking a shot at congressional gridlock, Obama calls for a "year of action."

"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action," Obama said. "That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America."

Update at 9:18 p.m. ET. 'A Breakthrough Year For America':

Obama now moves on to say that the United States is a much better place than it has been:

"Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that's adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world — the first time that's happened in nearly 20 years. Our deficits — cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world's No. 1 place to invest; America is.

"That's why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America."

Update at 9:14 p.m. ET. An Ode To The American People:

After receiving a rousing applause from both sides of the chamber, President Obama opened his speech with an ode to the American people — with small vignettes of everyday accomplishments.

"Tonight, this chamber speaks with one voice to the people we represent: It is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong," Obama said.

Update at 9:10 p.m. ET. Obama Enters The Chamber:

With the bellow of the sergeant-at-arms, President Obama enters the chamber, flanked by congressional leaders of both parties. It'll be a couple of minutes before Obama begins his speech.

Just a quick reminder: NPR's special coverage of the address has now begun.

Update at 9:03 p.m. ET. Justices, Cabinet Members Enter Chamber:

Six Supreme Court justices and the president's Cabinet secretary are now walking into the chamber.

It's worth noting that it is three members of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court — Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas — who are not in attendance.

Update at 8:51 p.m. ET. Obama Now In Holding Room:

CBS' Mark Knoller tweets:

"Seven minutes after leaving WH, Pres Obama arrives at the Capitol. Now to holding room until time to be announced by Sergent-at-Arms bellow."

Update at 8:40 p.m. ET. Obama Headed To Capitol:

President Obama has now left the White House. His motorcade is making the short trip on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

Meanwhile lawmakers are filing into the the House chamber. Some of them, of course, have been there for hours, saving a spot near the center hall that ensures a handshake with President Obama and perhaps just as important also ensures some TV time.

Update at 8:34 p.m. ET. The Special Guests:

As our friend Liz Halloran reported for It's All Politics, here are some of President Obama's guests for tonight:

  • Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman of Boston, both of whom survived the Boston Marathon bombing and were captured in an iconic photograph showing a cowboy-hatted Arredondo rushing Bauman to safety
  • Gary Bird, the Moore, Okla., fire chief instrumental in search and rescue efforts after a deadly tornado hit his town
  • Jason Collins, a professional basketball player who became the first male active player in a major professional team sport to announce he is gay
  • Joey Hudy, the Arizona teenage creator of the "extreme marshmallow cannon" that was featured at the White House Science Fair and tested by Obama
  • Kathy Hollowell-Makle, the District of Columbia public school's teacher of the year last year
  • Members of Congress also invite guests. A notable one: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham invited Korie Robertson of the reality TV show Duck Dynasty.

    NPR's Melody Kramer tells us at least four lawmakers have now posted pictures on Facebook of them with the reality stars.

    Sen. David Vitter, who posed with Robertson, wrote: "My kids are impressed I get to see one person tonight, and it's not President Obama or Speaker Boehner."

    Update at 8:16 p.m. ET. People Not Government:

    After President Obama speaks tonight, the official Republican response will come from Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

    According to excerpts of her speech released by her office, she will emphasize that Republicans advocate for smaller government and an empowered American public. She will say:

    "Tonight I'd like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision — one that empowers you, not the government. It's one that champions free markets — and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you. It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable. And it's one where Washington plays by the same rules that you do. It's a vision that is fair and offers the promise of a better future for every American."

    In that same vein, Rodgers will also take a shot at the president's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act:

    "We've all talked to too many people who have received cancellation notices they didn't expect or who can no longer see the doctors they always have. No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but the President's health care law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's. And that whether you're a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer, you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you."

    As The Washington Post reports, three other Republicans will deliver responses.

    Update at 8:05 p.m. ET. The Designated Survivor?

    For every State of the Union, a member of the president's Cabinet does not attend in case of a catastrophe.

    ABC News and CNN report that tonight's "designated survivor" is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who used be a professor of physics and engineering at MIT before he joined the Obama administration.

    By not attending, CBS's Mark Knoller explains, Moniz preserves "the line of succession."

    "Moniz tonight is under Secret Service protection and is held at an undisclosed location until the President is safely back at the WH," Knoller tweets.

    Update at 7:49 p.m. ET. A Promise Of Action:

    The White House has released a couple of excerpts of Obama's speech. As his senior adviser John Podesta said on Morning Edition, Obama was going to make the case for taking action through executive orders, bypassing Congress.

    According to the excerpt, Obama will say:

    "Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. 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.

    "Our job is to reverse these tides. It won't happen right away, and we won't agree on everything. But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I. 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."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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