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Obama willing to bypass US lawmakers and go it alone in key areas

US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress (AFP)

US President Barack Obama layed out his strategy for getting around a divided Congress starting with a wage hike for federal contract workers in a State of the Union speech on Tuesday that reflected scaled-back legislative ambitions after a tough year.

Obama made clear clear in his address that he is willing to bypass US lawmakers and go it alone in some areas by announcing a series of executive actions aimed at boosting the middle class, many that do not require congressional approval.

Obama told the Congress that he is eager to work with lawmakers, "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," Obama said.

ECONOMY

He announced that he is issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers with new contracts. Obama also called 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.

Issuing the order allows the Democratic president to bypass Congress, where Republicans oppose a broad increase in the minimum wage. But liberals felt Obama's move did not go far enough, arguing that he should have extended the wage hike to existing federal contracts.

Obama also said he is offering a set of "concrete, practical proposals" to speed up economic growth and strengthen the middle class, which he says has lost jobs because of shifts in technology and global competition.

"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," Obama added.

To help Americans prepare for retirement, Obama will use executive authority to create a "starter" retirement savings account available through employers. He also wants to drop retirement tax breaks that apply to wealthy Americans already well positioned for retirement and increase the earned income tax credit for people without children.

To strengthen the long-term US fiscal position, Obama committed to paying for new initiatives and supporting more budget deficit reduction. Using his executive authority, Obama will start four more manufacturing innovation institutes this year and wants Congress to create up to 45 more. He also will pursue a trans-Pacific partnership and an agreement with the European Union to boost US exports.

The US President also urged Congress to pass an extension of emergency unemployment insurance. His efforts to get the long-term unemployed back to work will include a meeting this week with leading CEOs, and federal job-training programs will be reviewed to bring them in line with market demands. He also called for bringing outsourced work back to the United States and advocated discrimination protection for women and gays in the workplace.

GUANTANAMO AND MILITARY

Obama said the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed this year. He did not mention plans for troop levels in Afghanistan.

EDUCATION

Obama said another 15,000 schools and 20 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade will have access to high-speed internet service in the next two years as part of his plan to have 99 percent of American students on next-generation connectivity.

Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon will be part the education-tech push and more partnerships will be announced in coming weeks. He also renewed his call for pre-kindergarten schooling for all 4-year-olds, as well as innovation in preparing students for college and then making college more affordable for them.

GUN CONTROL

The US President said he would continue to work to reduce violence in the United States despite a lack of support in Congress for gun control measures he failed to get passed last year.

"I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say 'we are not afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theaters, shopping malls, or schools," Obama said.

INMIGRATION

Obama renewed his call for securing US borders, cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants and offering a path to citizenship, saying such reforms would create thousands of jobs and boost the economy by $1 trillion over two decades.

The US President 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.
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