By TAZEEN ASIYA AHMAD and ILANA SHULEVITZ
WASHINGTON – Saying this could be “a breakthrough year for America,” President Barack Obama called on Congress to build on the economic recovery he said is already underway by restoring jobless benefits, raising the minimum wage and helping women earn equal pay for equal work, in his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said, during his more than hour-long address to a joint session of Congress.
Following through on a pledge to use executive action if Congress fails to act, the president announced that he would sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to raise the minimum wage for their employees from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour in all future contracts.
And he called on Congress to do the same for the rest of the country.
He also offered Republicans an olive branch, saying there are issues where the two parties can work together.
“As President, I’m committed to making Washington work better, and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are, too,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland called the speech excellent, praising Obama’s message that creating jobs and increasing wages is necessary to help families achieve the American dream.
“I think his whole message about trying to get wage growth, the long-term unemployed, I thought it was a message that Marylanders will identify with,” Cardin said.
He pointed to manufacturing opportunities and technology growth as specific areas where Maryland excels and said Obama’s message would “hit home in our state.”
“We believe we’re the hub of our technology growth in this country,” Cardin said.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, said Obama gave a “great speech.”
“I thought his best phrase was ‘let’s give America a raise,’ which means let’s raise that minimum wage so that a person who’s working full time is not living in poverty.” Sarbanes said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who attended the speech, supports an increase in the state minimum wage to $10.10.
“In Maryland, we share many of the President’s priorities, including expanding opportunity, creating high-paid and high-skilled jobs, and lifting more people out of poverty by raising the minimum wage,” O’Malley said, in a statement.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress, was less supportive.
“I’m very happy that the president spent time thanking our men and women in uniform. We’ve been at war for years. As a veteran, I appreciate him taking the time to acknowledge our men and women in uniform,” Harris said. “Beyond that, I didn’t hear anything new tonight. There were no new plans for how to create jobs. There were no new plans for how to get us out of the Great Recession.”
Obama said jobs are already being created, touting the launch of high-tech manufacturing hubs in North Carolina and Ohio, and plans for six more around the country. He called on Congress to fund more hubs connecting businesses to research universities.
He also called for an extension of the unemployment benefits that expired last month, saying hard working Americans need to be given a chance.
As he did last year, the president called for access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds. Like other initiatives, that proposal failed in the politically toxic environment in Washington in 2013.
“For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding,” Obama said. “But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people,” Obama said, acknowledging the gridlock.
A poll released Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal/NBC News shows Americans are increasingly concerned about Obama’s capability as a leader, dissatisfied with the economy and fearful for the future.
Over half of the 800 Americans polled said they wanted the government to play a role in reducing income inequality. Over three-quarters of respondents indicated that job creation should be the administration’s priority, and nearly three-quarters believed that reducing the federal budget should also be at the top of the agenda.
The president addressed some of these concerns saying that his administration will make increased efforts to expand hiring, infrastructure development, job training and educational opportunities.
Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond said the president’s speech was “optimistic and forward-looking.”
“There was lots of focus on the economy,” Palazzolo said. He said unlike past speeches there was a lot of emphasis on public/private partnerships and what individuals do in communities.
“What the president did not say much about is the deficit,” Palazzolo said.
While acknowledging Republican opposition, the president lauded the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, and asked Republicans to stop holding votes to repeal it.
“The first forty were plenty. We got it,” he said. “We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
In Maryland, roughly 18,000 residents have enrolled for private insurance plans as of Dec. 27, according to the O’Malley administration. Maryland’s goal is to have 150,000 people in private plans by March 31.
Obama also renewed his call for immigration reform and called on Congress to get it done this year.
Gustavo Andrade, organizing director at CASA de Maryland, said that if the president is serious about immigration reform then he should sign an executive order to stop the unprecedented number of people being deported.
Energy and the environment were again placed near the top of Obama’s agenda, with the president saying that for the first time in nearly 20 years, the United States produced more oil at home than it bought from the rest of the world.
“America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades,” he said.
He also said fuel standards for trucks need to be improved and power plants must dump less carbon pollution into the environment.
On the touchy issue of government surveillance, Obama was brief and did not mention the National Security Agency by name, instead saying that Americans need to have trust in the country’s intelligence operations.
“That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated,” he said.
Obama called on Congress to lift restrictions on detainee transfers so that the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can be closed.
He also pledged to protect the country while keeping American troops out of open-ended conflicts.
“But I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts,” he said.
Capital News Service reporters Mary Faddoul, Antonio Franquiz and Justine McDaniel contributed to this report.