29 Jan 2014

Obama promises to tackle inequality

9:56 pm on 29 January 2014

US President Barack Obama has promised to bypass Congress to tackle economic inequality in his annual State of the Union address.

In his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday, Mr Obama said he was driven to act by the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that while the stock market has soared, average wages in the United States have barely budged.

Barack Obama delivers his address on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Barack Obama delivers his address on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AFP

The president pledged to "take steps without legislation" wherever possible, announcing a rise in the minimum wage for new federal contract staff.

Standing before a deeply divided Congress, which has blocked his efforts to pass new gun controls and immigration reform, Mr Obama said he was prepared to go it alone and to bypass Capitol Hill altogether if the gridlock continued.

In his speech last year, the president urged Congress to raise the minimum wage. On Tuesday he said he'll do it himself, taking it from $US7.25 to $US10.10.

"When America does not stand still and neither will I, so where ever and when ever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families - that's what I'm gonna do."

Mr Obama's big theme was how income, inequality and low social mobility threatened to turn the American dream into an empty promise.

But his proposals were small and piecemeal, among them an Executive Order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, which will only affect a limited number of workers, the BBC reports.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner later warned that the president would "run into a brick wall" by using his executive power to side-step Congress.

"House Republicans will continue to look closely at whether the president is faithfully executing the laws as he took an oath to do. There's a constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and in following that constitution is the basis for our republic and we shouldn't put that in jeopardy."

Mr Boehner said the minimum-wage rise would not make a big difference, as it only affects future contracts.

Mr Obama said his top priority remains ensuring that middle class Americans feel secure in their jobs, homes and budget. He said he would continue to press Congress on laws to fight discrimination against women in the workplace, so that having a baby does not jeopardise their job, the ABC reports.

The president said he is committed to making Washington work better in order to rebuild the trust of the American people.

Mr Obama said the US is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth. But in a barely concealed dig of Republicans, he said politicians and Congress have to help the progress.

"For several years now this town has been consumed by a rancourous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It's an important debate - one that dates back to our very founding.

"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."

Climate change measures

The president unveiled new measures to address climate change that aim to promote the country's abundant shale gas and oil resources while balancing concerns about their impact on the environment.

Barack Obama highlighted several new and existing measures to expand clean energy production, chiefly by using executive powers that are not dependent on action by a divided Congress.

Among the proposals cited by Mr Obama was a plan for new incentives to encourage the country's fleet of medium and heavy duty trucks to run on natural gas and alternative fuels, Reuters reports.

Those incentives will complement new fuel efficiency standards that the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation will issue later this year for heavy duty trucks, the White House said.

Mr Obama also wants to boost the use of natural gas in transportation and industry, but said his administration was working to develop new environmental standards for oil and gas drilling on public lands and to reduce emissions of methane - a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr Obama said the EPA will continue to work with states and cities to develop new carbon pollution standards for the country's power plants - the largest domestic source of greenhouse gas emissions.

New emissions standards for the country's existing power plants were the centrepiece of Mr Obama's Climate Action Plan, unveiled in June last year, as a blueprint to carry out the climate goals outlined in 2013's State of the Union speech.

Mr Obama's speech on Tuesday aimed to strike a balance between his administration's climate goals and championing the benefits created by one of the biggest oil and gas booms in the history of the US. In November last year, the US - the world's largest oil consumer - reached an important milestone when its production of crude oil outpaced imports for the first time in 20 years.