By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will lay out a strategy for getting around a divided Congress and boosting middle-class prosperity on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that reflects scaled-back legislative ambitions after a difficult year.
Obama will make clear in his 9 p.m. address that he is willing to bypass U.S. lawmakers and go it alone in some areas by announcing a series of executive actions that do not require congressional approval.
The White House said Obama would announce he is issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers with new contracts.
In his address, Obama will also call on Congress to pass a bill to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 and index that to inflation.
The executive order raising the level for federal workers, which applies to new contracts or existing contracts in which terms are being changed, will take effect at the beginning of next year, with janitors and construction workers among the beneficiaries. Issuing the order allows Obama to bypass Congress, where Republicans oppose a broad increase in the minimum wage.
White House officials said Obama would also announce new executive actions on retirement security and job training to help middle-class workers expand economic opportunity.
“What you’ll hear in the speech tonight is very concrete, realistic proposals as it relates to wages, as it relates to education, as it relates to training, high-tech manufacturing, retirement security, those are the things that he’s focused on,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on NBC’s “Today Show.”
With three years left in office, Obama has effectively reduced for now his ambitions for grand legislative actions.
Obama is expected to renew his appeal for a long-stalled immigration overhaul that has been stymied by Republicans. He will promote his signature healthcare law, four months after its disastrous initial rollout.
White House officials said the president would try to work with Congress to accomplish his agenda, but would also try to advance it through executive actions if necessary.
“We will continue to call on Congress – both sides of the aisle – to come up with new and fresh ideas for how we can grow our economy and create opportunities for the American people, but we aren’t going to stop at that,” White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett said on MSNBC’S “Morning Joe.”
Congressional Republicans expressed skepticism.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said that while the president may have the authority to raise the minimum wage on federal contracts, the impact will be “close to zero” because it will only affect future contracts.
He also said an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage could harm the economy. “When you raise the cost of something you get less of it,” Boehner told a news conference after a party meeting near the U.S. Capitol. “And we know from increases in the minimum wage in the past, that hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have lost their jobs.”
‘COMES DOWN TO ECONOMIC ISSUES’
Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his healthcare law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about how to respond to Syria’s civil war.
Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words like “divided,” troubled” and “deteriorating” to describe the state of the country, the poll showed.
A central them of the address, Obama’s sixth such annual speech in the House chamber, is addressing income inequality, as middle-class Americans struggle to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery.
“It comes down to economic issues,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “The economy is going to be the thing that determines whether people have confidence in the president. If the economy is doing well, people will forgive a lot of the things the president has done or not done.”
Attending the speech will be a variety of Americans who will sit in the gallery with the president’s wife, Michelle Obama, symbolizing issues important to the White House. They will include heroes from last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, a firefighter who led the rescue response to an Oklahoma tornado, and an openly gay basketball player.
One of Obama’s goals is to lay out ideas that Democratic congressional candidates can adopt in the run-up to November elections as they try to hold on to their Senate majority and challenge Republicans for control of the House.
Obama will talk up themes from the speech in a two-day road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Caren Bohan and David Storey)