A president’s annual address to Congress offers the opportunity to write a wish list for the year ahead. In the weeks leading up to his 2014 State of the Union, President Obama emphasized a plan to work around Congress to accomplish his goals when they would not act.
Mr. Obama can take small steps by using executive orders, presidential memorandums, and convening like-minded leaders on some of his agenda items. For big policy changes like immigration reform or raising the minimum wage, there's little he can do without Congress. Here’s a breakdown of what the president wants to do in 2014, and whether he’ll need Congress to do it:
Obama's planned executive orders
- Minimum wage: Obama announced the morning of the State of the Union that he was increasing the minimum wage for federal contractor workers to $10.10 per hour. Addressing rising inequality and limited social mobility was a major theme of the president’s speech, but raising the minimum wage for the majority of Americans is one area where he has few options on his own.
- Retirement savings: Through executive actions, Mr. Obama plans to push the idea of “myRA” accounts for millions of Americans – a new starter retirement savings account that will allow people to begin saving money through their employers through an account like a Roth IRA or savings bonds backed by the U.S. government. The president will hold an event in West Mifflin, Pa., Wednesday where he will sign a presidential memorandum directing the Treasury Department to create the savings account.
- Family policies: President Obama has plans to host a summit on working families to highlight policies that can help families, showcasing companies who have excelled in that arena and recommend laws and policies that advance the administration’s goals on flexibility, paid leave and reducing discrimination.
- Job training: Mr. Obama is directing vice president Biden to conduct a review of the federal job-training system.
- Unemployment: Later this week the administration will convene a group of CEOs and other leaders to talk about the best ways to incorporate unemployed Americans back into the workforce. President Obama has asked CEOs to do a better job of making sure they are considered for open positions.
- Environment: Mr. Obama has pledged to streamline permitting and cut red tape to encourage the construction of factories that rely on natural gas.
- Universal pre-K: On this perennial goal, the president can do little more than bring together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists who want to make commitments to expand early childhood education.
Where he'll need Congress' help
- Immigration: “It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement -- and fix our broken immigration system,” Mr. Obama said. He’ll need House Republicans to get on board and offer some policies, since they won’t take up a bill passed by the Senate.
- Extending emergency unemployment benefits: “This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Mr. Obama said in the speech, highlighting guest Misty DeMars, a wife and mother who lost her job to budget cuts just a week after buying a house. “Give these hardworking, responsible Americans that chance. They need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game.” An extension of the benefits, which expired at the end of December, is currently stalled in Congress.
- Earned Income Tax Credit: The president wants to expand this tax break to cover single Americans who don’t have children, because he argues it will help reduce inequality and allow people to climb the economic ladder.
- Tax reform: “Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here and reward companies that keep profits abroad. Let’s flip that equation. Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home,” Mr. Obama said in his address. Republicans want to reform the tax code as well, but they are more interested in ways to lower rates for individuals and businesses.
- Minimum wage: In addition to his plan to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers, Mr. Obama wants to see a higher minimum wage for all Americans. He’ll kick off his post-State of the Union travel with a trip to a Costco in Lanham, Md., Wednesday to talk about the issue. In his speech, he praised companies like the wholesaler for embracing higher wages as a way to increase productivity and reduce turnover. “This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program,” he said. Unfortunately, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, believes it’s bad policy that will hurt the people Mr. Obama is trying to help.
- Manufacturing: Mr. Obama has pledged to expand a network of hubs for high-tech manufacturing, but said he could create more – and therefore spur more job growth – if Congress backed the program.
- Trade: The president is seeking what is known as, “trade promotion authority,” which would allow him to get a faster, up-or-down vote to finalize trade deals being negotiated in Europe and Asia.
- Environment: In his speech, Mr. Obama called on Congress to authorize funds to build fuel stations that rely on natural gas, and change tax priorities to reduce tax breaks for fossil fuel industries.
- Investment in universal pre-K: Here’s another area where further federal investment will require Congress to use its power of the purse.
- Guantanamo Bay: Congress eased restrictions on transferring detainees out of the military prison in the most recent defense authorization bill, but the president would like them to go further and remove all remaining restrictions so he can close the prison..
- Iran: Here’s something President Obama doesn’t want Congress to do: pass new sanctions against Iran. He argues that fresh sanctions will undermine a six-month deal with Iran to halt its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief and end the possibility of striking a longer-term deal with the Middle Eastern Nation. “The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it,” Mr. Obama said. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”