(USA TODAY) - President Obama told Congress during tonight's State of the Union Address that he wants to work with them on plans to improve the nation's economy -- but he also vowed to take executive action if necessary.
While asking Congress for legislation on an immigration bill and a minimum wage hike, Obama also announced a variety of executive orders, including one to increase the minimum wage for some federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
LINK: Read the State of the Union speech in full
"America does not stand still, and neither will I," Obama said. "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."
One theme of the speech: Income inequality. Obama promoted the idea that the federal government can help create economic opportunity through job training and college education programs.
And he defended his embattled health care law, telling Republican critics: "If you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice -- tell America what you'd do differently."
In the formal Republican response to Obama's speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said that "too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president's policies are making people's lives harder."
The health care law in particular is slowing any economic recovery, Republicans said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his state has seen "restricted access to doctors and hospitals, lost jobs, lower wages, fewer choices, (and) higher costs."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama should have used his speech to promote issues like free trade, the Keystone oil pipeline, and House GOP jobs bills that are pending in the Democratic-run Senate.
Boehner also warned Obama against executive overreach, saying that "we're just not going to sit here and let the president trample all over us."
In pledging to work with Congress, Obama called for a "year of action" and again asked House Republicans to pass a bill to "fix our broken immigration system." The Democratic-run Senate passed an immigration bill last year.
In urging Congress to increase the minimum wage for all Americans, Obama told lawmakers: "Say yes. Give America a raise." Some Republicans have said a minimum wage hike will discourage employers from hiring more people.
Another Obama request of Congress: an extension of unemployment insurance that lapsed at the turn of the year.
Obama also announced an executive order creating a new savings program for workers whose employers don't offer retirement plans.
Before vowing to assert executive authority, Obama said he is offering plans "to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you."
Obama cited the rancorous politics of recent times. He said it threatens economic recovery, and has even prevented the government from carrying out its most basic functions, alluding to the partial government shutdown in October and recent disputes over raising the debt ceiling.
The president also praised a recent budget deal as a sign that the parties can work together.
At one point, Obama paid tribute to both Boehner -- and to himself -- by saying the story of America is "how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House," and "how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth."
Touching on concerns that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing, Obama said that "corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher," but the wages of average workers "have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.
"Our job is to reverse these trends," Obama said.
That includes redressing inequality for women, Obama said, endorsing equal pay for equal work, and help for child rearing. Referring to the television drama about life in the 1960s, Obama said that, "it is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode."
Obama also discussed his energy and climate change policies. On the latter topic, Obama said that "climate change is a fact" and lawmakers should be able to tell their grandchildren they built "a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy."
Echoing a major part of last year's State of the Union speech, Obama again called for new gun control laws. None of the proposals he made last year passed.
The State of the Union also gave Obama a chance to outline his foreign policy agenda. He discussed the winding down of combat operations in Afghanistan that end late this year, and ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Obama again vowed to veto any congressional bill that slaps new sanctions on Iran, saying they would derail ongoing negotiations with Tehran. Obama said those talks, while difficult and uncertain, are the best chance to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make nuclear weapons.
The president also mentioned proposed changes to drone use and National Security Agency surveillance programs. He again called for the closing of the terrorism prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a pledge he made during the 2008 campaign.
Referring to the recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, Obama said, "America must move off a permanent war footing."
Hanging over this particular State of the Union speech: congressional and state elections coming in less than 10 months.
Over the past year, Obama has seen his approval ratings fall to percentages in the low 40s in the wake of problems with health care and an uneven economic recovery.
As with previous State of the Union addresses, this one features guests invited to illustrate some of the president's polices, such as health care, immigration, gay rights and responses to national tragedies.
Obama's guests today include two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, openly gay basketball player Jason Collins, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the governor of Kentucky and an immigrant brought illegally to the United States as a child.
Congressional Republicans will also have guests, including some who say they have lost coverage or been forced to pay more because of the new health care law.
In the days ahead, Obama will follow up his speech with traditional post-State of the Union trips to try to sell the ideas he discusses.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the president will speak at a Costco store in Lanham, Md., near Washington, D.C.; a steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa., near Pittsburgh; a General Electric gas engine facility in Waukesha, Wis., near Milwaukee; and McGavock High School in Nashville.
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